Alex Bell is a business reporter for the Manchester Evening News. In this interview for the Kloodle Blog, he describes the routes into journalism, what it takes to get your first break, and what the career is actually like. The post provides great insight into the power of work experience, and putting yourself in the right place at the right time. Alex’s articles can be found on the MEN website, and you can follow his updates on news around Manchester by following him on Twitter.
Here’s the interview.
How did you get into journalism? What course did you take and what experience did you gain beforehand?
I took a NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course in Liverpool after university. It took a fair bit of time to accumulate enough work experience, a portfolio of work and the right qualifications for my CV to get noticed by possible employers. But it did in the end because I wanted to work on a newspaper.
What was your first job in journalism?
It was at the Macclesfield Express. I got the job in 2008. It came about after doing a fair amount of shifts for free at the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post, plus shifts at papers further east along the M62 like the South Manchester Reporter.
With the advent of social media, are there any guerrilla routes into journalism that people can take?
To my knowledge – no. Videos and pictures get uploaded by people on social media, of course, and end up being used by journalists. But that’s just an extension of the more old fashioned way of people telling other people what’s been going on.
There is a fair amount of blogging and ‘citizen style journalism’ about because of the digital age we are in. While social media helps spread news instantly, it is professional journalists who are best equipped to deal with breaking news, next day news and so on.
What are the most important skills a potential journalist should possess?
An interest in what is going on, wherever and whatever that might be. I’d say a fairly thick skin, an ability to write and persistence help too. Being flexible and aware of current affairs and people in general is good if you already have that in you.
How can a student gain relevant work experience?
By getting a good CV together and contacting the right people in the office of the newspaper you are trying to gain experience in. Most, if not all news organisations, look for those studying the right degree or an NCTJ to start with though, as the courses include things like Media Law and Shorthand, plus public affairs, that students need to pass to get work.
But I’d also go into offices, speak to other journalists or management. Be aware of what’s happening when you are out and about too, as stories are everywhere. From my experience, the people higher up in news organisations, very much like people who have stories that no one else has, and they like people with ideas.
Can you describe a typical work week?
Firstly, the week varies. Some of the work is reactive and some pro-active, depending on how much there is to react to.
As an example, when Manchester City owners the Abu Dhabi United group released a plan to invest £6bn in more than 6,000 houses in east Manchester as part of a joint venture with Manchester council, we reacted, but also started planning online articles, video etc, magazine type features and a whole lot more about the significance of Manchester City’s massive plans.
On another note I was a crime reporter for a few years – that is largely a job where you react to things that happen. As a business journalist now though there is that bit more planning as well as reacting to some of the bigger stories that break.
So a typical week is really about reporting, fairly and accurately, what is going on the Greater Manchester economy, and how that is impacting people (readers), the region in general and beyond. I’ll meet with contacts I already know plus new contacts at least three or four times a week.
In between meetings with people, whether that be businessmen / women, I’ll go to say, Soccerex, the three day business football event held in Manchester recently. That was the kind of thing that generated a lot of news. There are always big events happening where something interesting is going to get said. It’s just a case of balancing this with getting good relevant content online – with both pictures and video to support the reports – and in the next day’s Manchester Evening News, while also working on our Greater Manchester Week magazine.
What are the best bits about being a journalist?
Probably the variety of projects you get to work on. Being a reporter in Manchester is good. Ian Brown said the city has everything but a beach and I’d side with that. It’s a creative free thinking city, but with a pretty dynamic professional services sector and plenty of entrepreneurs. Sport, with City and United, tends to dominate. But there is so much more. To conclude though, my interest is people, what they have done, are doing or are about to do, is the best thing about being a journalist, as you get that privilege of finding out and telling an audience about what you’ve found out.
What advice would you give to any would be journalists?
I don’t like advice, certainly if I’m the one who has been asked. But anyone who wants to work as a journalist – whether, that is as a sports, crime, business, political, health or even war correspondent, or the many more areas one might end up specialising in for periods – should be prepared to be a little patient, look after the little things, and the big things (stories) will come and your profile and following will begin to build.
If you were to go back to university tomorrow, what would you do differently?
Kloodle wasn’t around when I was at university in 2003. I’d join the Kloodle network and I’m not just saying that. I think it is important that people at university enjoy themselves, but also have some kind of core plan – especially given the costs involved to study these days.
I’m not a person to over plan things, but I think there needs to be a structure and Kloodle can help students. Because the last thing you want is to have to do a job you don’t want to do, for too long after university wraps up. You are there to enjoy it, but I think it’s great when graduates get a good job or do something specific when they enter what I suppose is known as the ‘real world’.