Three lessons I learnt from working at a local newspaper

It was approaching the end of 2017 and I was preparing to enjoy a Christmas full of chocolate, alcohol, TV and films, family gatherings, and revision for my January exams…

And then I read an interesting article about the Christmas period being a good time to get some experience in local journalism. Staff often take time off work meaning that newspapers are likely to have a spare desk and appreciate the extra help if you’re willing to work hard, roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

I couldn’t fault the article’s logic and so, in carpe diem style, I emailed the editors of my local newspapers attaching my CV, a couple of references and three articles I’d had published. As luck would have it, within 24 hours, I got a phone call from the news editor of a local newspaper (Wakefield Express) inviting me to work on the paper’s newsdesk across December and January.

With deep-rooted interests in the media and PR, copywriting and content creation, I knew that working at a local newspaper would be a really valuable experience for whatever career path I ultimately ended up taking, and so I was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Here are three lessons that I learnt from my time working at the newspaper that I’ll carry forward with me in the future. I hope that you will find them interesting and useful also! Any questions or comments, feel free to get in contact.

#1: Always think about your target audience

Who is your target audience? What are their interests? What existing knowledge do they have? What new information could you provide them with that would add value to their life?

These are some of the questions that you have to think about when writing a local news story, but this idea is equally applicable to copywriting and marketing campaigns more broadly.

To give an example, I was working on a story about the publication of a report by the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee regarding plastic bottles and plastic pollution. The committee’s chair was the MP for the local area, Mary Creagh, and so already the story had a local angle relevant to Wakefield Express’ readership.

However, I wanted to take this further and so I rang Ms Creagh’s office and asked if she could give me comment about why she believes the report was specifically of interest to her constituents in Wakefield.

The report called for more free public drinking fountains to help reduce plastic consumption, and Mary told me that she wanted more fountains in West Yorkshire as there was only one at present. I rang to ask where the fountain was and was told that this fact that been found in an article by The Guardian that had surveyed local council districts.

To find out where this fountain was, I then e-mailed the Guardian writer in question and eventually discovered it was in Greenhead Park, Huddersfield.

Though this was only a small detail, it really added to the story as it gave it as much of a local angle as possible, and it meant that I was providing new information of specific interest to the publication’s target audience.

In summary, working at a local newspaper taught me the importance of considering target audiences, an idea that is relevant not just to local news journalism but to content creation and marketing campaigns more broadly.

It also made me realise that when working in PR and trying to sell in stories to the media, you have to try and view things from the perspective of the respective media organisation: who is their target audience, and is the information being provided to them appropriate and interesting for that audience?

#2: Be proactive during placements and work more broadly

Local newspapers have evolved in recent decades. Today, they have fewer resources and reporters are expected to do more and more – finding and reporting on stories in a much bigger patch than in the past, no longer having a big team of sub-editors (or in some cases any at all), having to be involved in social media as well as content creation, no longer having a team of photographers and so taking the photos themselves or (more often than not) try to source them through other means, ideally for free given papers are so cash-strapped.

Basically, they don’t have time to babysit the intern on work experience so you have to really be proactive if you want to make the most of your time there. I always arrived earlier in the morning to find story ideas and then pitched them to the news editor when he arrived. Sometimes he said thanks but decided not to run the story, other times he said it sounded great and asked me to go ahead and start investigating it further. You have to be willing to go into newsrooms with confidence, ideas and energy.

That being said, people will always try and help you out, particularly if you are polite and friendly with them. The important point here is that you shouldn’t expect to be spoon fed. This is particularly important in a case like mine where you’ve pitched that you want to be helpful during the busy Christmas period.

Again, this general point transcends beyond local journalism but is applicable to any kind of work experience, internships or work more broadly.

It is always good practice to try and take responsibility for your own learning and self-development.

People are also more likely remember others who have added value to their life and work (or at least tried their best to), and are much more likely to be supportive and give you help in the future should you need it if you have helped them out in some way.

#3: Build good relationships and contacts

The Wakefield Express initially didn’t have a ‘splash’ [front page lead story] for one of the weeks of print while I was there.

With a weekly print deadline looming, one of the reporters called a contact she knew at a local college to ask what they had been up to. The college told the reporter that they had applied for University status and this would mean Wakefield would have its first University and some of the courses would be world-first.

This fantastic story came from just one phone call to someone who the reporter had built a good relationship with. That relationship landed the paper with an exclusive story of huge interest to its readership, and the local college equally got some good publicity.

This was just one example that made me realise just how important contacts are in the media and PR.

Journalists work to tight deadlines and sometimes struggle with content ideas. If you can help them out by providing them with good story leads, you are likely to form a mutually beneficial relationship.

Again, point #1 is important here from a PR perspective in terms of not wasting journalists’ time and ensuring that you try to sell in stories that are appropriate for their specific target audience.

In the case of the local newspaper I worked at, I found that the reporters were very much committed to serving their community, and so any stories you try pitching to them would have to have a strong local angle in order to have the best chance of being picked up.

And contacts don’t have to be built by attending dinner parties or giving out favours, as is sometimes perceived. It’s simply about being fair, honest and friendly with people.

If you can demonstrate to journalists your reliability by meeting any deadlines they have and providing them with information specific to their brief, you have the basis to establish a solid, mutually beneficial relationship that might bring with it fruitful rewards.

A good rule is also to “be interested and be interesting”.

In other words, ask questions, share stories and be genuine. Try to remember little things about people like their hobbies or interests outside of work, as these can help to build rapport. It’s a bit of a cliché but the devil really is in the detail!

Conclusion

During the three-week placement working at a local newspaper, I landed several bylines but the experience itself was just as valuable.

If you’re interested in working in the media, PR or any related field, I definitely recommend contacting your local newspapers’ editorial team and seeing if you can get some work experience with them.

Though I found luck during the Christmas period for the reasons stated at the start of the article, a speculative pitch during any time of the year could be just as fruitful.

From my experience, I would advice ensuring any pitches for work experience are concise (journalists are often busy and thus less likely to engage with a lengthy email), and that you make it clear what you can offer them and emphasise that you will try to add as much value to the organisation as you can. and not just sit there and be spoonfed.

Looking forward, I begin my job in content marketing four weeks to this day, and I will definitely try to remember the above three lessons as I create copy and content.

However, the lessons can be applied to any writing, content or PR / media-related role:

  • Always consider who your target audience is and what content will be useful and interesting for them
  • Be proactive and take responsibility for your own learning and self-development
  • Build good relationships and contacts that you can carry forward and use to add as much value to your respective work as you possibly can

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