At an event in London late last year, three young journalists discussed how blogging helped to kickstart their careers. As reported at the time by Journalism.co.uk, Guardian technology and media reporter Josh Halliday stated that “The most important thing I did at university, including my degree, was to blog and get online. That’s what got me the job.”
The growing list of student bloggers who have found their way into good ‘pro’ jobs also includes Hannah Waldram, who founded the Bournville Village blog, ended up taking to professional local blogging as the Cardiff ‘beatblogger‘ for The Guardian’s now mothballed Local project before becoming a community coordinator for the same newspaper, and Dave Lee, who founded The Linc newspaper and website in his university town of Lincoln before moving on to a varied career that currently sees him covering technology news for the BBC.
So, is blogging the perfect way for student journalists to get a foot on the ladder? Paul Bradshaw, leader of the MA Journalism course at Birmingham City University and Visiting Professor at City University London in the UK, believes so. “It’s definitely something I’ve been encouraging my students to do for a few years now,” he says.
“I think students entering the marketplace who have never run their own news website are at an increasing disadvantage,” explains Bradshaw. “Pretty much every employer I talk to says that they would ask serious questions about why an applicant was not already doing their journalism on some sort of online platform. There’s also a new opportunity for students to build assets – a URL, a network, a reputation – that employers will be looking for.”
The ability for anyone to set up a blog in minutes, at no cost, makes it a no-brainer that someone wanting to find paid work as a journalist would want to cut their teeth with some form of news blogging.
Taking on local media
Local newspaper sales have fallen, due in part to a decline in classified ads heralded by Web-based platforms such as Gumtree, so students now seem particularly attracted to covering local news. Kellie Maddox studies journalism at Birmingham City University and started Hednesford News in February this year as part of her final year project, with the aim of continuing and developing the site after graduation.
“With the decline in local print news coverage and the increasing boom of online news, it seemed a natural transition to start up a blog to provide focused content on a specific town or area, particularly when Hednesford (the town where I live) is currently undergoing huge regeneration which local residents are clearly interested/concerned about,” she explains.
“During my second year at university, I began to hear more about hyperlocal blogging and started to network with some of the key hyperlocal figures in the Midlands through social media and networking events,” Maddox says. “Having seen the success of blogs close to my home, such as The Lichfield Blog (now Lichfield Live) and seen how responsive people are to it and how vital a service it provides the community, I was keen to find out more and wanted to start a blog of my own. Hyperlocal blogging allows me, as a journalism student, to write and produce content, and publish to an audience quite freely, whenever I want and to provide a service which has currently been absent in my local area.”
Joseph Stashko is a journalism student at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK. As a blogger at Blog Preston, he covers local news in the city on a daily basis. He admits that getting into blogging “was just something to do,” but he was spurred into it by the 2010 UK General Election.
“Blog Preston was already up and running without my involvement, but had leant towards more feature-based and local history pieces rather than information or journalism. With the elections coming up I got in touch with the original founder, Ed Walker, and asked him whether I could run a live blog along with a few others to have some dynamic election coverage. It culminated in a live blog that took in audio, video clips, text updates and photos. That was my introduction to local blogging and after that I was asked by Ed to take over running of the blog.”
Self-made work experience
Stashko sees his reporting for Blog Preston as being more than just work experience – he sees it as being potentially better than the opportunities a traditional short stint in a local paper newsroom might offer. “In journalism, work experience is touted as a key part of the process that you need to follow in order to land a job. Local coverage allows you to do arguably more than you’d ever do in a newspaper office because you can be more experimental and have a free choice about what you cover. It also gives you a sense about what people care about on a local level – something that may not be important to you might be a burning community issue, so it teaches you basic news values.”
To date, Stashko is most proud of the coverage Blog Preston gave to a march by the controversial English Defence League. “It was an opportunity to go to town on both live coverage and follow-up content. So on the day I was live tweeting and sending out photos, which helped to build a live picture for people following the coverage. Afterwards there was enough content to make a short video package, an audio slideshow, a local business angle and a general report of the event. Our live coverage ended up being so good that it ended up being followed and used by big local media outlets who weren’t even covering it live.”
Stashko has even had the opportunity to experiment with new ways of reporting in a way that many fast-moving professional newsrooms may not have time for. In particular, geolocation-based reporting has been trialled of late on Blog Preston. Reviews and articles containing background information relevant to locations around Preston are posted to Foursquare, while Stashko recently mapped out the city’s most unhygienic restaurants and takeaways, including it on the site in an embedded Google map.
“There was little journalism involved – all it meant was me digging around in the Food Standards Agency for lots of results – what made it special was rather than just publishing the information I made it easy for the end user by visualising it on a map. Stuff like that also had a strong social element where people were curious to see how their favourite place to go stacked up, or share it with friends,” Stashko explains. “I think a lot of people underestimate the popularity of just being a useful source of information, rather than necessarily having to pursue hardcore journalism all the time.”
One of the problems of maintaining a blog in your spare time is that, no matter how much you enjoy it, the rest of your life can get in the way. Stashkko admits that balancing his studies, a student social life and voluntary blogging is sometimes a challenge.
“It’s always a struggle, sometimes I get in at 11 or 12 and realise I have to write something up otherwise there’ll be nothing on the site the next day, and that’s a pain – but ultimately I enjoy doing it, so for the most part that means it’s never too much of a bother.
“For me my studies will take priority in that I want to end university with a good degree, but the value that I’ve got from Blog Preston is very tangible – it’s led to some paid work, got me known as someone who’s doing things within the hyperlocal space as well as giving me the opportunity to use online tools that’d probably either be frowned upon or looked at as time-consuming in a traditional newsroom.”
Kellie Maddox, blogging single-handedly at Hednesford News, has decided to take a short break from the site while she completes her degree, although she plans to return to it, monetising the project via the Addiply advertising platform, which is aimed at local and niche Web publishers.
Leaving it all behind
Of course, at some point, if all goes well, that experience of running a successful, self-started blog will pay off in the form of good job, but what happens to the blog the students spent so long toiling over? More importantly, what of the audience the blog built up? Are they left stranded?
Luckily, at least in some cases, it seems that local blogs can become something of a legacy for the students who started them once they leave town. Hannah Waldram’s Bournville Village blog is still operating under a new editor, while Dave Lee’s The Linc has gone from humble beginnings in 2007 to become a thriving publication which was shortlisted in the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2009 and recognised by the BBC in 2010 for its General Election coverage.
No longer a novelty?
While blogging certainly helps student journalists hone the skills they learn in lectures, the novelty of ‘a student who blogs’ must have worn off a little for employers now. Is that a problem?
“I think several years ago employers would’ve been bowled over by the fact that you even had a blog (as long as the content was half decent) – now it’s a lot more difficult to separate yourself in a world when lots of journalism students are on twitter, have a blog and use other social media,” Joseph Stashko says.
Paul Bradshaw believes that students can still stand out through using new and innovative reporting techniques. “It’s still easy to stand out from the crowd if you can get great stories or engage a community in powerful ways. Too few students do the latter. The students who are doing data journalism and visualisation are standing out, and also multimedia work.”
“Producing a regular blog allows me to develop my own journalism skills, be creative in terms of the content I produce, such as mapping, audio and video, and to demonstrate my commitment to the cause, my enjoyment and interest and my determination,” says Kellie Maddox.
Maybe that’s it – in the end, it’s all down to showing that you love what you do so much that you’ll fill your spare time with it, and that’s always going to score bonus points from any employer.