One of the reasons I left journalism proper to come into academia was the depth of subject matter I could go into through academic work and writing, where the average length of a published piece was, say, 7,000-words.
Not only that, but the critical range of ideas in that piece could be deeper, for a more engaged–so I thought–audience. Instead of a few thousand or more casual readers, I would have perhaps a few dozen, if lucky a few hundred, critical readers, using my work to build their own theories and processes. Importantly, I felt, I would be deepening my knowledge of my subject areas, my obsessions, through engaged, critical work.
And then came along, in 2010, Megan Garber, with what struck me as a wonderful idea — continuity journalism, dedicated to the follow-up, the idea of following a story (for example, the Mexico-America border crossing; climate change) over a great deal of time. Doh! It struck me that what journalists could do within their ‘beats’ (areas of expertise) was exactly what I was doing as an academic, but with a much bigger audience.
It’s important to think of journalism, and journalists, in this light – as experts. Sometimes they are called onto morning TV and show themselves up as merely opinionated, which is, of course, not the same. Sometimes they get to do this on more serious programmes, such as Today on Radio 4, to millions, and are, again, often, merely opinionated rather than expert. But often they are both. Many of them (us) really know their onions (or dill, said the food blogger who cooked for me last Friday, whose seven years blogging is in itself a form of continuity work).
So when my MA Journalism student Graeme Jones referenced Megan Garber’s piece back from 2010 in his blog post about the follow-up, it made me pretty pleased about the task I’d set the class: to take from David Randall’s The Universal Journalist one of the ‘habits of good journalism’ for finding stories and work out some ideas about it, to implement in their own practice. I’m looking forward to seeing what Graeme comes up with as his story that he wants to “keep burning”.
As I am Nick Clark’s story about Southwick in Sunderland. Nick has written a piece which is insightful, personal and quite profound regarding how the really big stories are there, if you hang around long enough (hanging around is one of Randall’s tips) and give yourself time to piece together the smaller events into a bigger picture. What Nick has identified here–and only at the beginning of the MA too!–is the jigsaw of structural inequality seen in the fragmented communities of North East England under austerity.
Sarah Bailey also chose to hang around, although with her work focusing on the habits of Sylvia Plath coming up to the anniversary of her birthday, she might have less boarded up places to do so, hitting the libraries and poetry events of the North East. Even so, I’m impressed with the awareness of stepping into comfortable places with a new perspective, of, as Zina Christofi puts it, keeping eyes and ears open to stories. That’s thinking like a journalist. What I also like about Zina’s approach is to know the “whole story” and the stories that are behind what gets reported.
Ellen McGann and Laura Nicholson both chose to focus on luck: making it yourself, rather than waiting around for it. It is, as Ellie puts it, about going “out in to the world, experiencing things first hand and taking chances that other people do not.” In a way I do believe in luck, but, as the quote goes, you never really meet a lazy lucky journalist.
Neale McGeever chose possibly the most difficult habit to tackle: non-obvious sources. But it’s one of the most rewarding. I like where Neale goes with this idea–into the minutiae of hardcore fan groups, communities, and the ephemera and marginalia of life. Many of the greatest ideas came from the margins of bigger stories and processes (here I’m thinking of Freud and psychoanalysis–it was all in the margins, but that’s another story). But the most important thing about Neale’s thinking is that he’s aware that finding non-obvious sources won’t be accidental. It’s again about maintaining a wide focus on what could be. Being curious and thinking like a journalist.
It’s the same point Wayne Madden makes, in a good summary of the overall process. Film buffs, you’ll particularly love Wayne’s knowledge of the journalist in the movies.