Wednesday, December 02, 2015


‘DIY - how to be heard above the media noise’ - a talk at Student Media Conference at the University of Brighton Students Union

I was invited to speak at a Student Media Conference at the University of Brighton Students Union in November 2015. Here's a copy of my talk entitled ‘DIY - how to be heard above the media noise’ and in it I look at how should students gain media experience and make their mark in a crowded arena and ask when should you work for free and when should you say “no”?

I’d be interested in the opinions of any other freelancers too.

Should you work for free? Probably not.

Back in the olden days, if you had something to say to the world, you found a typewriter and spent hours in the photocopying shop, then slaved over a hot stapling machine before trying to foist your words of wisdom on a frankly disinterested public.

If you were a photographer without access to a darkroom, you took your film down to Boots to collect a week later, or if you wanted to save 50p, you sent it off for development and waited two weeks, eagerly opened the envelope, admired your blurry shots, shoved them back in the envelope and stuck them in the shoe box under the bed.

Today everyone has the equivalent of that shoebox or the photocopied manifesto except now they’re pretty much all online and nobody seems content to leave them gathering the digital equivalent of dust that so many of them frankly richly deserve.

So - I’m going to take a look at how to get yourself heard above the noise in a crowded marketplace of people shouting “Me me me! Look at me!” all the time. I’m also going to look a bit at the vexed question of how much free work is too much, and when to say no.

We don’t just have a digital footprint these days, we have bloody great size nines. And if a potential employer follows your footsteps, what are they going to find? So I also want to look at some ways to make yourselves more employable and how to avoid those digital bootprints leading to a disaster.

Let’s be honest - there aren’t all that many jobs now. Many traditional journalistic jobs have been eroded or cut altogether. But there are still jobs - they may just be slightly sidelong and you may need to think a bit laterally.

So these are the days of DIY. At the risk of sounding a bit wanky, if you’re aiming to get seen, you have to create something that some might call a “brand”. (OK, sorry, it does sound a bit wanky).

When you’re starting off, your online presence is the first place a potential hirer or employer will go to see where you’re at. Those pictures of you at a brothel with a madam and some lines of coke chopped out on the table will come back to haunt you (hello George Osborne!). So it may be a damage limitation game, or you may be starting with a fresh sheet.

You now have a multitude of tools at your disposal which are pertinent to your chosen media path. And what’s even better, they are all free. So no more photocopying bills, no more visits to Boots’ developing department. But using those tools well and to maximum impact is a different matter.

The first place people usually think of as their profile is Facebook. This can be your major disaster zone. This is the place with pictures of you with your pants round your ankles, drooling comatose at a festival, or sitting in a brothel with a line of coke in front of you. Potential employers WILL look you up on Facebook.

So - if you’re on Facebook, but your professional image is tarnished, to put it mildly, make sure it’s locked down. Facebook is a sneaky shit and keeps changing the privacy settings, so check regularly that your profile is kept to friends only - not friends of friends - do you know who your friends’ “friends” are?. Come to that, do you know who your “friends” are? And please don’t make your profile pic one of you smoking a fat one because that will be publicly visible.

If your personal Facebook is potentially embarrassing or damaging, consider changing your profile name too.

Same goes for email. If your email is blowjob69 @, set up one in your own name that you use for your professional work. Don’t use your Uni email either address unless you plan to be here forever.

I’ll come on to the more specialist sites in a bit.

Twitter is the next obvious one. Again, a Twitter handle that reflects something meaningful about what you want to pursue, or just recognisably with your name. And again, if your Twitter name and feed is toxic, close it or separate it off from your public identity to potential employers.

So what does your Twitter feed say about you? Does it give a coherent Impression of someone who is credible, informed, engaged in their subject areas and ultimately trustworthy?

Do not ever re-tweet something without being 100% convinced of its provenance. Read articles before you share and don’t fall into the trap of knee jerk re tweeting images unless you’re absolutely sure they are what they appear to be.

Here’s a recent example. On the night of the Paris attacks, a guy in New York called Rurik Bradbury Tweeted a picture of the Eiffel Tower in darkness under his spoof Twitter account, “Prof Jeff jarvis” saying “Wow. Lights off on the Eiffel Tower for the first time since 1889.” Putting aside the ethical question of deliberately spreading misinformation, you only need to think for a bit to wonder if the lights have been on 24/7 on the Eiffel Tower through two world wars and really all night long since 1889? Despite that, thirty thousand or so people re-tweeted it.

Or equally people sharing racist memes on Facebook and Twitter - always check emotive images with Google image search and even if it is credible, ask yourself what you achieve by sharing.

Follow key people in your chosen subject field. Do not expect them to follow you back as Twitter is not a numbers game - it should be about quality.

But Twitter is probably your most powerful publicity tool at the moment to show you’re creating engaging content, re-Tweeting relevant info to your followers and having useful conversations.

Now we get onto the specialist sites, according to what your chosen field is. It’s not unusual to have five or six or more sharing sites such as Instagram, Youtube, Mixcloud, Wordpress, Pinterest etc.

But - you need to make a judgment call about what are the best sites for you. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to scatter their content thinly over severals sites in the hope it’ll make you look like you’re more interesting or engaged.

Having current content is everything. If you’ve got a Youtube site with two scrappy videos on that you made a year ago, it’s not really going to back up your claim that you’re a film maker.

You’re not a blogger if your blog consists solely of “Hi” I’ve set up a blog site! Watch this space! Coming soon” and that’s the first and last thing you’ve posted.

Equally you’re not a podcaster if your site hasn’t been updated for three months.

There is no excuse with technology now not to be creating content all the time, which you put up on your own showcase sites - videos, blogs, photos, podcasts. Brighton is a rich source of content and people with opinions about everything.

So concentrate on a narrow number of relevant media platforms which you keep updated with fresh content, show you off to your best advantage and keep your profile focused on what you say you’re about. No employer really wants to hire a Jack of all Trades; they’d prefer an Ace of one or two.

Keep an eye on what’s current and where your chosen industry is going. For example, Vimeo is seen as more professional and less cheesy that Youtube, but has nowhere near the same number of contributors.

Pro photographers tended to use Flickr but then Instagram came along, which may or may not have divided pros from people posting up snaps.

And as an aside, did anyone sign up for Ello which was supposed to rival Facebook?

Definitely join LinkedIn when you have something to say. More about that later.

Get involved in everything.

And I mean everything connected to your course and to what’s going on around you at Uni, whether you’re studying in Brighton or in Hastings. You’ve got a great opportunity here to try things out so roll up your sleeves and do it: not only media but clubs and societies, talks, events, and don’t forget they are all opportunities to create content - interviews, videos, blogs, pictures, all there on a plate.

I heard a great quote once which has stayed with me: “Be a wanna-do, not a wannabe”.

All specialist industries are very small and reputations go round. You MUST have something provable to back up your claims - if you say you're a flim maker you need to have a convincing online portfolio. If you claim you’re a print journalist, have a blog of current writing; even if it’s not a published piece, a blog will illustrate what you’re capable of.

Brighton is full of bullshitters “getting it together”. Everyone’s an artist, musician, DJ, blah blah blah - to which the answer is “Well when you’ve got it together, let me know.” Don’t be one of them.

You have access to platforms here: radio, TV, online journalism. Use them. Having the discipline of a weekly or monthly deadline can be very helpful and they give you regular demonstrable content - for example a weekly article or a monthly podcast which proves you can do it.

I produce a weekly speech show on RadioReverb which I hold on my podcast site and of course Tweet and Facebook about it in advance (and don’t forget your guests will also do your publicity for you) then again when the podcast is up, so I’ve always got that and a weekly BBC Introducing show which is current online.

If you need extra experience then look to the outside world. But you have to match what you say you can do with what you actually do. If you want to work in radio then get involved with hospital radio too for six months. It may not be your passion but it offers lots of opportunities to increase your skills base.

Volunteer. The importance of volunteering for your CV and life development skills can’t be stressed enough. it’ll boost your skills set, get you better known and trusted and enhance your media career as someone who is known to be trusted.

Don’t forget the world around you is filled with stories. Every person you meet has a story to tell. Some of the best stories I get are from people I meet in the pub, at events or via involvement in activities outside my sphere or work.

i do a lot of voluntary work because I enjoy it, it’s of benefit to the people it serves, it’s got me networked into the local community, it gives me opportunities to increase my skills and knowledge base and I get loads of gigs and events for free. But doing it just because you get stuff for free is absolutely the wrong reason - and you’ll soon get found out.

But here’s the other side of the coin - how much do you work for nothing?

Good question. I’ve worked for years in a mixture of paid and unpaid work, and I always saw the unpaid work as beneficial in a number of ways:

Ask yourself - will it boost my skills base - is it a chance to try out something new, learn from it, see if I’m good at it? Will it get me contacts or improve my reputation? Do I enjoy it or believe in it as a cause?

You will constantly be pestered for free work in exchange for something vague called “exposure”. They will say “Of course if you don’t do it, someone else will.”

I would say NEVER work for nothing for a commercial venture if the best that people can offer you is “exposure”. Unless you know there are going to be several thousand people watching, reading or listening, tell them keep their exposure - you can do it just as well yourself, unless you are satisfied that it meets the criteria I’ve just mentioned.

My rule of thumb is to set a rate for your work. This is a bit like how long is a piece of string - what are the local going rates and how much are your skills realistically worth? You’ll need to research the local and national market for this, but do not undervalue your skills.

Using this, you can set a notional rate for any unpaid work. Of course you MUST deliver whether it’s paid or not but decide how much you’re going to do, and tell the person who’s asking you to work.

For example, you may say “My rate for a 300 word article is £50. I will do three for you as a gift and after that I need to be paid.” You will need some resolve in this but it’s always advisable to set limits and you can always review them. Don’t forget with any commercial organisation the favour is more likely to be you doing it for them rather than the other way around.

Networking is something that scares the pants off many people but it’s vitally important. Your face to face interactions with people are your way to sell your personality and skills.

But - be truthful. Be able to back up what you say you can do with what you can prove you do. This is where your online portfolio comes back. As soon as your back’s turned, someone you meet at an event may well be looking you up online. Does what they see there stack up against the glowing report you gave of yourself?

Becoming a familiar face is just part of it - I can think of people who go to everything but do nothing; you have to do it too.

Join or network in a professional organisation where relevant. If you’re serious, I’d recommend you join the National Union of Journalists - it’s £30 for the duration of your course and you get a press card, advice, opportunities for training, conferences and so on.

Research your chosen medium. What’s the word count for an Argus article? Will BBC Sussex take your 30 minute documentary or welcome a proposal for a heavy rock show (at the moment, no for either of those). So target appropriately and gear your work toward the house style and audience of each media outlet.

So what are employers looking for? Someone who can do the job they say they’re going to do. Your online presence is your CV. They want to work with someone who fits in - again you need to create the online image you want to project, backed up by content.

Reliability and professionalism - delivering the goods - that starts at day one. If you’re assigned to write an article for Hastings and St Leonards Herald which needs to be in by 3pm tomorrow you get it in. I can’t call up the boss at the radio station and say, “Oh sorry, I couldn’t get the programme together this week, maybe next week…” and expect them to be fine about that.

One final recommendation I’d make is to join LinkedIn. It’s the place where you meet other professionals working in your areas of interest. It’s the place where you hold an online CV that makes you look like a serious candidate for the job you yet don’t know exists. Make sure your profile accurately reflects your chosen career path and isn’t too scattershot.

I know people working in radio and they’ve also added television, blogging, social media, copywriting etc etc and I think - really? - I’ve never been aware you’ve done that? Only add the skills you can convincingly actually demonstrate you have.

Don’t forget all these tools are free. Using them well is challenging but you can do it with care, thought and time. You now have a more powerful armoury of journalistic weapons than at any time before in history. A camera and recorder in your pocket, global platforms for your work, access to resources here, a million and one  great stories all around you - use them well and you’ll succeed.

There are no excuses - seize control of the means of production and go and do it.

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Great Post Melita - really useful advice. Thanks for sharing!
A very sensible and informative summary - I look forward to the next one Melita!
Cheers both!
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