Confessions of a student journalist

Photo: David Barker

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 10 June 2016. I was asked for a short article about how to get into student journalism, and it just ran away with me. This may be the single most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever written, but I hope it’s helpful and/or amusing to someone.

I didn’t choose the hack life. The hack life chose me, because it had a deadline that week and I was the only one available. I’ve been a student journalist for almost as long as I’ve been a student – you may remember me from such articles as the one about Christmas adverts, the one about dank memes, or the one from last October where I predicted the inevitable downfall of Donald Trump (lol). I have, in CV-speak, ‘been around the block’ – I’ve written for every section of this humble student rag, and I’ve spent over a year editing it. But now, with the herpes-like persistence of dissertation prep and the grim prospect of Finals Year looming on the horizon, it’s looking like I won’t be writing at the rate I currently am (about two or three articles a week) for much longer. It is at this point that you should imagine me as a fist-shaking supervillain: you haven’t heard the last of me! But you are, at least, less likely to hear quite so much from me in the near future. So as the fat lady winds down into the slower-tempo tunes, and the waiter begins eyeing half-empty dessert plates, I thought it might be nice to take a look back on my two years in the business, and offer advice to any potential future hacks while I’m at it. Because this torch needs passing to someone, and I did mention there was a deadline this week, didn’t I?

The first thing I learned as a student journalist, and the first lesson I offer to any trainee Oxford hack, is that nobody cares. At halfway hall this year there was an award for best student journalist. There were four options on the ballot, one of which was me, two of which were other venerable college hacks, and finally there was the joke option ‘I don’t care about student journalism’. This option won. By a considerable margin. I came second. Not that it matters. None of this matters. The vital lesson to impress upon padawan hacks is that no-one will read what they produce. The OxStu and Cherwell clog up JCR bins, the Tab is itself a giant bin, and no-one but the mad or utterly starving will go rooting through them for nourishment. The student papers are a training ground; they’re a place where aspiring writers, free from the burden of readership, can experiment, test themselves, and ultimately, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft, improve their abilities. No-one reads the articles we produce. And thank god for that. To assume a readership is to misunderstand the student press’s purpose; it is a place to develop a style that might earn one a readership, not a place where you are automatically given one.

The other thing a writer needs is a work ethic. You need to work for those stories that nobody will read. That means hitting deadlines, ideally several days ahead of time. Editors like people like that – it’s how they reproduce. The sort of person who will be given a Friday deadline and submit the Monday before is exactly the kind of ruthlessly efficient anal-retentive hack who is guaranteed a long and successful career in editorship. On that subject, or at least close enough for the digression not to matter too much, please stick to your word counts. When I first became an editor, literally the first article I ever commissioned came in over length. We had asked for 500 words. We were given 1,500 words, complete with a five hundred word introduction describing the precise motions involved in rolling a home-made cigarette. It was supposed to be an article about student accommodation. So it would be nice if you could stay on topic and know your limits, as it’s a nice way of not making your editors utterly hate you (he said, looking worriedly over the last six hundred and sixty-seven words). It’s also not a good idea to get overly precious about your articles – things get cut, and what gets cut is always the editor’s call. You are not being censored. You are being edited. If you don’t like it, start a blog of your own and realise all of your embarrassing mistakes forty-eight hours after the damn thing has already been uploaded for all the world to see. You have entered into this writer-editor relationship consensually, and this one of the criteria for doing so. Think the editor as a dominatrix for your articles – there’s a reason they call them ‘submissions’, after all.

On a related subject: editing. Should you ever find yourself editing a section, or, god forbid, an entire newspaper, there are two things you need to know. The first is that Adobe InDesign is the invention of the devil, sent to torture all journalists after a scandal in the 1980s where multiple tabloids accused him of being really, really, into Dungeons and Dragons. It will be the bane of your life for as long as you bear the name ‘editor’. Just accept it. The second thing is that content can be remarkably difficult to come by  – many people simply don’t have time to bash out 350 words about the new roundabout, let alone a rambling semi-coherent essay by way of industry advice. My recommended solution is simply to throw shit at the wall, and eventually a week’s worth of content will stick. Always commission more articles than you need for a given week, and be prepared to chop and change on the fly, as a certain amount of articles will inevitably be delayed or outright dropped. The shit-throwing approach also works well for getting interviews – most A-listers are too busy for the likes of you, so start plumbing the depths of United Agents. Anyone who looks even remotely interesting is probably worth a go, and in my experience the struggling authors selling through Amazon are usually a lot more interesting to talk to than the vapid million-selling thriller writer, even if his car is slightly nicer. No-one should get into student journalism for the glamour, or for the vain hope of meeting celebrities – any who do will be very disappointed very quickly, though if you buy me a drink I will tell you about the time I met Nick Jonas and accidentally told him to fuck off.

Oh god, I’ve barely started. I’ve not even mentioned the crewdates, or the office playlists, or the time I used sigil magic on a particularly difficult article. Suffice it to say that there’s a certain amount of hacking you need to learn on to job. But there’s one thing I do need to talk about before I go, and that’s the importance of networking. (No, I’m not talking about OUSU’s poor WiFi). I have met some extraordinary people on my hacking odyssey, from the editors who believed in me back in first year to my comrades in the dep ed trenches to the new hacks coming up behind me (at least some of whom are editing this very article). Know ye this, aspiring hack: you are only as good as the team that surrounds you, and I was lucky enough to consistently be surrounded by champions. It has been an absolute privilege to know and work with all of them, and I’m glad to call many of them friends. So if this article is for anyone (other than the dear readers who have made it this far), then it’s for you, my Comrades InDesign. Splendid folks, the lot of you. You were the reason I kept coming back, and you are what I’m going to miss most when I finally, at long last, bid my reluctant farewell to student journalism.

Although I should point out that I will still be coming to all your events. Especially the ones with free drinks.


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