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The Training of Journalists
Citizen journalism is rapidly becoming the main bulwark supporting a democratic world
Peter Hinchliffe (Hinchy)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-11-28 08:45 (KST)   
"There's a notebook in the bottom drawer," said the chief reporter, pointing to a metal filing cabinet. "Help yourself."

So began and ended my initiation as a newspaper reporter.

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How Citizen Journalism Changed My Life
I was 19, serving in the Royal Air Force. I wrote a letter to the editor of a local weekly newspaper, saying that I wanted to become a journalist on completing my military service.

Soon I would be on leave for two weeks. "Could I spend it with you, shadowing a reporter," I begged.

The editor said yes. I found out later that he had served in the RAF, and looked kindly on all who wore its blue uniform.

So at 8:45 one Monday morning I showed up in the paper's newsroom. "Don't think you're going to sit around twiddling your thumbs," said the tough-talking chief reporter. That's when he pointed to the filing cabinet and ordered me to get a notebook. "The Mayor's visiting a home for backward kids. You're going out with a photographer to report on the event."

(In those days, long before the concept of political correctness, children with certain disabilities were known as "backward" kids.)

Twenty minutes later, with a friendly little lad holding onto my hand, I was following the Mayor around the school.

That little boy, so insistent on being my companion, taught me my first and most fundamental lesson in journalism.

A reporter must have an overwhelming desire to meet people. To find out what makes them tick. All kinds of people.

You can be the best writer in the world, but if that ability is not backed up by a curiosity that compels you chat to everyone you meet, you don't have the makings of a reporter.

Back in the newspaper office I wrote up my report of the Mayor's school visit. I wrote dozens of stories during those two weeks -- and I was offered a permanent job on the paper.

No one ever gave me a lesson on how to write a story. I copied the style and interviewing techniques of senior reporters. I noted how sub-editors sometimes cut and rewrote my stories. Their professional editing taught me what to do, and what not to do.

I worked as a reporter and news editor for big city newspapers in England, the United States and Africa, meeting and writing about thousands of people. I interviewed Harold Wilson, then the British prime minister. I shook hands with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, covered the Beatles on one of their U.S. tours

And I wrote about people down on their luck, with no money and no place in which to sleep.

While news editing the Daily Nation, Kenya's biggest daily paper, I spent one morning a week teaching in the journalism department at Nairobi University. I was not told what to teach, or how to teach. I had to "invent" my own lessons in practical journalism.

I persuaded various "celebrities" to accompany me to the University and make themselves available to be interviewed by the would-be journalists. One of them was J. M. Kariuki, a junior minister and one of the most popular politicians in Kenya at that time.

My experiences at Nairobi University persuaded me that reporting techniques -- the know-how that I had picked up over the years -- could indeed be taught in a formal way.

Back in England I became one of the three trainers in the Thomson Newspapers Academy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We ran a 17-week course for 15 university graduates who had been offered places as reporters on provincial newspapers in the Thomson group, subject to successfully completing our pre-entry course. There were 842 applications for the course. All those chosen were Oxford or Cambridge graduates.

The man in charge of the course had news edited Thomson's daily papers in Newcastle. When he was news editing the Evening Chronicle, I was for a time his deputy.

Working on a multi-edition daily paper required speedy writing and editing. There's no time for academic debate in a busy news room. John, the course leader, knew he had to convince the trainees that they were entering a career in which instant action was necessary, rather than intellectual discussion.

On day one of the course the 15 trainees were given half-a-dozen press releases on a variety of subjects, and told to try their hand at turning them into four- or five-paragraph news stories.

On day two John, for the first time, stood at a blackboard. "Ah, this press release from the Gas Board This would be the intro."

He chalked a brief sentence on the board.

A hand was raised at the back of the class. "But surely," said a languid voice "there's more than one possible introduction to this story."

"What's your name lad," said John.

The young man announced his name.

John riffled through a pile of stories turned in by the trainees. "Ah yes " he said. "I have your story. If you had turned it in to Peter here, when we were manning a news desk, do you know what he would have done?"

The young man shook his head.

John tore up the story, dropped it in a waste basket, took up his piece of chalk, and turned back to the blackboard. "As I was saying, this is the introduction to this story "

A hard lesson? Yes, but in the space of 24 hours 15 super-bright people were forcefully made aware that they were entering a tough, competitive business.

All 15 of those trainees, during the course, had news and feature stories published in the local daily papers.

All 15 developed into outstanding journalists, some of them becoming famous. The man so harshly dealt with on day two had a fine career on a Fleet Street newspaper. Now he is a highly successful biographer, whose books are read worldwide.

These thoughts and memories of helping to train journalists in Africa and England are prompted by the opening this month of the OhmyNews Citizen Journalism School.

The school, a 90 minute journey by car from Seoul, will focus on teaching citizen journalism and user created content.

There will be:

Classes by OhmyNews founder Oh Yeon-ho for aspiring and junior journalists.

Workshops for Internet journalism targeted at college and university students.

Intensive journalism prep-school for young applicants who want to join professional news organizations.

There will also be special classes for media executives and managers who wish to start a new media venture, business writing classes for corporate managers and executives and practical writing classes for leaders and publicists of nongovernmental organizations.

Various classes on general health care and other well-being issues will also be on offer.

There will also be a re-education program for professional journalists. I can think of quite a few folk, raised during the cut-throat days of daily newspapering, who could benefit from this.

There was a time, and not too long ago, when I firmly believed that daily journalism should be left to full-time professionals.

Not anymore. OhmyNews provides abundant proof 365 days a year that citizen journalists can match, and frequently excel, jaded professionals.

As many as possible should learn how to write a news story, or an article expressing an opinion.

Citizen journalism is rapidly becoming the main bulwark supporting a democratic world.

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©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Peter Hinchliffe

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