Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The first freelance journalist to take on an apprentice

After a decade of working in Fleet Street news rooms I went freelance when my daughter was born. Working from home, I juggled looking after her with writing features for newspapers and magazines. There were a few tricky moments when I had to bring telephone interviews to a close in double-quick time because she’d woken up from her nap, but mostly it worked fine. And these days, when my children are fiercely independent teenagers and I can write full-time, I’m so glad I persevered with my career.

The one thing I never considered, though, was employing a trainee journalist to help run my business. But that’s what freelance education journalist Jan Murray has decided to do. Two days before this year’s A level results (fingers crossed for everybody), she’s written a piece for The Guardian, outlining her decision to become the first freelance journalist to take on an apprentice.

“I’ve decided to recruit an apprentice to assist me with research, transcription, developing story ideas and – once they have enough experience under the belt – possibly even the writing of articles,” she says.

“They’ll work for me four days a week and spend a day a week working towards a business administration apprenticeship at Harlow College... I want to give them as much hands-on experience as possible, so I’ll be taking them along when I go out to cover stories and, where appropriate, getting them to do some interviewing.”

Jan’s idea is an innovative one, and I’m sure loads of ambitious youngsters will apply, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to train journalists. As she says, trainee hacks need to be accurate writers, possess good research skills and have “plenty of initiative and determination.” But I reckon these skills are best learned in the news rooms of local papers.

I did my training with a group of weekly newspapers in Devon, where I spent two years writing about flower shows, parish council meetings, golden weddings and village fetes. It wasn’t exactly cutting edge stuff but it taught me a lot of skills that I still use today. After eight weeks of learning shorthand (still essential for journalists), public administration (how local government works) and law (so we knew what we could and couldn’t report in the local magistrates court without committing contempt), we were let loose in the news room to do the job for real.

My worry with Jan’s idea is that her apprentice will spend most of his/her time doing general admin, like transcribing interviews, printing out cuttings and sending out invoices. But in my view it’s the buzz of working in a busy news room, seeing a variety of experienced reporters in action and crafting a great story from an initially unpromising interviewee that teaches you how to be a journalist.

I hope Jan’s initiative is a brilliant success but I’m not convinced it’s the way journalism training should be going.

PS: Thanks to Liberty London Girl's entertaining and informative blog I've just discovered this lovely Anthony Burrill poster (above), which I'm going to order for my office wall. Work hard and be nice to people - I can't think of better advice for us all, trainees or otherwise.


  1. I've been a journalist for fifteen years and I've never set foot in a newsroom nor know a single squiggle of shorthand. There are plenty of routes into this business (I started with a correspondence course) and it seems to me Jan is merely offering another one - not suggesting that it's necessarily the best one or the way journalism training should be going.

  2. Thanks so much for commenting, Alex. I agree that there are lots of different routes into journalism. I'm just not sure that working as an apprentice to a freelance necessarily offers the best or broadest experience. I do wish Jan luck with it though and hope I'm proved completely wrong.

  3. Well, I'm not sure either, but I guess what I'm a bit puzzled about is why do you think it necessarily has to be the 'best' or 'broadest'? Can't it just be something different?
    I do take your point that it may not teach all newsroom skills, but it surely offers a second-to-none insight into the work of the jobbing freelance journalist - something being in the newsroom can't do for you?
    Interesting discussion. I ought to have declared earlier that I know Jan - and I'm sure it won't be all admin and invoices!

  4. I'm sure Jan will give her apprentice a fantastic insight into the work of a freelance journalist. But I still think the best way of training to be a journalist is to be in a news room getting experience of everything - court reporting, news stories, theatre reviews, local government etc. Being a freelance is very precarious and I think you need skills across the board, or perhaps an expertise in something like education or health, before you can make a living at it.

  5. I agree with Alex that this route into journalism is simply a different way of training and gaining invaluable experience.

    Just like education should provide different routes to get the best out of students, this may be the best way for an individual to develop their skills as a journalist.

    I have no doubt that the type of newsroom experience you describe was a truly great way to learn the trade and get a broad experience. However, it isn't the only way, and definitely not the only way to also get an equally broad experience.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Livefreerange. It's a really interesting debate. I think apprenticeships are brilliant and admire Jan hugely for taking on an apprentice. But in today's tricky climate I worry that her apprentice won't get broad enough experience. Most apprentices work for more than one person and as a busy freelance it may be difficult for Jan to train someone and work at the same time. But I hope I'm proved completely wrong and it turns out to be a brilliant oppoptunity.


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