Young people occasionally ask me how they can get into journalism. No, that’s not quite true. What usually happens is that their parents tell me that their children are desperate to get into journalism and ask me how they should go about it…
“Jeremy has worked on his school and university magazines and got a lot of experience.”
“He was once on a school trip to The Times and caught the bug then.”
“Of course he really wants to be a TV journalist, but you obviously have to go through the mill on the press side first.”
“Do you? I mean, right!”
“So how would you recommend him to get into journalism?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
They don’t want that answer, honest though it is. They don’t want me to tell them how I got into journalism (sitting at home for four years, writing stuff and sending it off). They don’t want me to tell them to do a course or work up from the bottom. They want a quick clever answer.
And I suddenly realised the other day that I do have a quick, clever answer.
I realised this because I became aware that we were nearing the end of the exam season and I still hadn’t seen an article in a paper by a teenager called “My A Level Hell.”
I see it almost every year. Some bright spark who has been through A levels says to someone else, “Adults just don’t know what it’s like going through A Levels, because adults don’t do exams any more”, and the other one says, “Someone should tell them”, and one of them has the brilliant idea of writing an article about it and sending it off to a paper. Someone at the paper picks it up and thinks: ”Hmm, we haven’t had a ‘My A Level Hell’ piece this year. Might as well run it.”
And they do, because A Levels are one of the few things along with puberty, adolescence, teenage delinquency, teen drugs and their first sexual experiences, that the average journalist can never again experience. So the teenage writer gets his piece in the paper and then one of two things happen. Either he (or she) spends the money and forgets all about it, or she (or he, of course) gets the bug and starts writing more articles.
There are lots of things that a budding teenage writer can write about, all to do with being young, or at least being a lot younger that the journalists who will be accepting the article. May I suggest a few random headings for the budding journalist?
“What Youth REALLY thinks about drugs.”
“How to handle parents.”
“Spice Girls? Too Old for Me…”
“Why I Didn’t Vote.”
“Tim Henman a Role Model? You Must be Joking!”
“ I’d Like to Give Up Smoking. But I Haven’t Taken it Up Yet…”
“My First Day at University.”
Now, all these things have something in common, which is that they represent subjects which middle-aged people are interested in – party politics, sex, lost college days. They are the very topics which the harassed features editor at the newspaper should be talking to HIS teenage children about, but isn’t. So the harassed features editor takes articles like this as a sort of short cut to finding out what his own children are thinking, or even a substitute for talking to them. And once the young journalist has half a dozen articles like this accepted, he or she is well on the way to being one of the year’s bright new faces.
From my days at Punch I can remember one or two writers starting like this, and I am not talking about Alan Coren’s family. I can remember the student competition we organised for the best piece on the subject: “What I did in the Holidays”. Winner, Libby Purves. (She has worked for Radio Oxford in her hols.) Another competition, a light verse one, was won by Torin Douglas, now the BBC media correspondent.
But the best entrée I can remember to journalism was that of a young man who had not set out to become a journalist at all. He had set out to become a novelist. Indeed, he had written to all the living novelists he could think of asking them for advice on novel-writing, and quite a lot, including such famous ones as Graham Greene, had written back with friendly advice.
Did he set out to write a novel? Did he hell. He put all the postcards and letters together and made a feature out of them, which one of the Sunday papers published under a title like: “Hot Tips From the Great Novelists!” The day that young man accepted money for his private correspondence and turned his back on their advice, was the day he decided not to be a novelist but to become a journalist instead.
I wonder what happened to him.
The Independent Friday July 11 1997