My big break in journalism: top tips from the writers who've made it

Jack Oughton asks established names in the media how they began their journalism career and what advice they can offer

To find out what the journalists and writers that I look up to did to get to where they are today, I devised a questionnaire and sent a few tweets and emails. I asked: what's the one piece of advice you'd give to aspiring journalists? What was the most important thing you did for your career? And, what is good journalism to you?

Here are some highlights from what they had to say.

Sam Delaney is a writer and broadcaster. He has contributed to the Guardian, BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5. He is a former editor of Heat magazine. His book Get Smashed: The Story of the Men Who Made the Adverts That Changed Our Lives is published by Sceptre

"Pick up the phone. If you want to work for someone and have got an idea, don't dither, call them up. Find out who you need to speak to and ask questions. Be tenacious and thick skinned. Don't take rejection personally. Picking up the phone is answer to both finding a job and delivering a great story.

"I rang up the Guardian and just told them I had a story. Then I called up the people I wanted to interview for that story. Every big step in my career has involved me just asking people stuff repeatedly until I got an answer.

"Good journalism is gathering raw information and crafting it into a form that conveys the facts to the audience in a way that is compelling, maybe even entertaining. This is regardless of subject matter or medium. Your job is to tell a story, communicate clearly and concisely. It should never be a chore for the audience to imbibe the information you're trying to communicate, it should be a pleasure."

Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster, and a doctor who specialises in unpicking dodgy scientific claims. He writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian and runs the Bad Science website

"Keep an outside option. Bad journalism happens when people think: 'I have to write this to pay the mortgage.' Writing's not really my career, it's a hobby, which means I only write about things that interest me, in ways that interest me, which I think has been good."

David Quantick is a writer, broadcaster and critic specialising in comedy and music. He has written for, and appeared in TV and radio shows, from The Day Today and The Fast Show, to the controversial PopeTown and Brass Eye

"Anyone who's aspiring should stop aspiring and go and do it. Meet people, make contacts, practise your skills, and work. I wrote to the editor of the NME and told him his paper was no good. He wrote back and asked me if I'd like to write for it.

"Good journalism can be lots of things. It can be a clear and concise small report in a local paper that does what it needs to do, it can be a massive expose in a proper newspaper, or it can be a screamingly loud piece about why Lady Gaga is better than the Beatles. So long as the work does what it intended to do, it's good."

Jack Schofield is a technology journalist and former computer editor for the Guardian. He joined the staff to launch the newspaper's computer section in 1985. Schofield was also one of the Guardian's first bloggers, launching the 'Online' blog with Neil McIntosh in 2001

"Become an expert in something, or even two things, and you should be able to find a niche, even if it's a small one. "Spec reps" [specialist reporters] are harder to replace than generalists, and a specialist can get better with age and experience.

Good journalism is when readers feel or even say to themselves: 'I'm glad I read that.' The most brilliant story is wasted if nobody gets past the first paragraph. Or, worse, thinks you've wasted their time."

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is an author, blogger, and adviser on technology, globalisation and corporate change. He has written several management books, including 'Global Services: Moving to a Level Playing Field', 'Who Moved My Job?', and is a regular contributor to Reuters, the Guardian, and Computer Weekly

"I'd tell aspiring journalists to open their mind to the way journalism is changing. The entire media industry is being shaken to the core by the internet and uncertainty over distribution models. This is affecting the very idea of what it means to be a journalist. In the short term, the best thing any aspiring journalist can do is ensure they are multiskilled. Today, it is no good just being able to write well. You need to understand how to record good audio, edit it, record video, edit that too, and interview/publish in all these various formats. If a potential editor can see that you are familiar with various forms of multimedia publishing then you have a big advantage over the crowd lining up for that job.

"The most important thing I did for my career? I wrote a book. In an era of blogs and online video it may seem archaic to sit down and write 200 pages on a single subject, but it can shape your entire career. When you go into an interview, you can often be seen as just another hack. If you go into an interview and that person knows you are a published author on your specialised area, it opens doors and creates a lot of respect. You won't sell many copies of business or specialised literature, but the effort will be rewarded in the effect on how you are viewed in your company and the marketplace in general. This also opens new doors into research, analysis, and management roles.

"Good journalism is clear, direct, and engages the reader. It uses simple language even for complex subjects. The classic example I show to people is the difference between the FT and the Economic Times - the equivalent financial paper in India. The FT is finance-focused, but explores the impact of finance on every aspect of industry with a lot of comment that is rich, human and jargon-free. The ET uses acronyms in headlines and believes the world is about to end if a new bond issue is unpopular with investors. There may well be a cultural difference in terms of investing and finance, but FT manages to be full of finance information without it feeling like you need a finance degree to read it and be engaged.

Jack Oughton is a writer, journalist musician and digital artist from Croydon. He is an ex-trainee of Catch 22 Academy - a social enterprise that provides intensive training to help aspiring journalists get employment. He is also on Twitter: @koukouvaya

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Jack Oughton

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