I wasn't expecting to write something about, essentially, online journalism, and how to break into the field. It's something I know very little about. I've always thought of myself as a bit of a hack who just happens to have an axe to grind about the importance of culture. But a few things coincided and here I am. First, I've found myself writing some Indie music articles for The Indie Handbook. Second, I spent some time talking about how to get into journalism to a real bright star in the journalistic firmament, Stephie Tan, who writes some amazing pieces about the Singapore style scene. And third, I found myself taking part in a webchat about careers in online journalism run by The Guardian.
All of which made me realise I've actually come a lot further than I thought down the road, and am probably in a position to offer some observations. More anecdotes. Hopefully with a bit of instruction.
I've written a couple of posts about luck recently, here, and here. Chance, luck, happenstance - whatever you want to call it - is a strange thing. On the one hand by definition, there's nothing you can do to create it. On the other hand, you can do things to put yourself in the right place when chance strikes. You can put tags on your blog, for example. Several years ago, I did just that, writing a few columns about mental health and debt - it just so happened that someone from the Royal College of Psychiatrists was googling debt and mental health, and stumbled on my blog. We've been working together ever since. That he happened to be googling around at the time was chance. That I decided to write down some of my experiences and tag them wasn't.
Everyone loves a bit of P T Barnum. We writers are terrible at it, and most of us would rather eat curdled guano than play the exhibitionist. And yes, there IS something terrible about blind self-promotion. REALLY terrible. It's like those schoolboys who are so desperate for a girlfriend their tongues hang out when their sisters friends come round.
On the other hand, everyone loves pizzazz. And not just in the arts. My wife pointed out this morning that Richard Wiseman's research has shown that the most important factor in getting a job at interview is your likability. Which doesn't mean being an exhibitionist (just because I'm a media tart who'll cross the road if there's a sniff of a camera - yes it WAS me on Athens local TV talking about the price of restaurant food when I'd been in the city half an hour - doesn't mean you have to be). It means comporting yourself a certain way. Having the online equivalent of your own unique style (like a handkerchief in the top pocket).
Most of all, it means being memorable (in a good way). It's something I find easier in real life (beard and bright braces plus hat tend to get me photographed regularly even at fairly outrageous festivals ("sure you can take my picture - oh, and do go read my book" *hands out a flyer*). Online it's partly about branding and avatars and special colour combos on your blog. But most of all it's about voice. It's about saying it the way only you can. Be you. Really you. Then turn up the amp!
Thsi is what I really want to talk about, because more than anything it's what's got me the little success I've had. And I think it's the number one piece of advice I'd give anyone. Always be polite, always be helpful, and never be afraid to ask with a touch of self-deprecation and a cheeky grin on your face.
My motto is that it costs nothing to ask except a bit of embarrassment. And the more you do it, the less of THAT you feel. If you want to interview someone - ask. But do it right (in a way, this is part of the chutzpah above). "I don't suppose" is a great way to start a sentence - the reader can almost see you biting your lip coyly.
There's a very fine line between cheeky and arrogant. Both start from the same premise - behave as though you belong. But whereas arrogance has the attitude "of course you'll do it, because it's my God-given right. Don't you know who I am!" cheekiness has the attitude "wouldn't it be rather fun to do it? Eh? Don't you think?"
Cheekiness is the schoolkid who stands with you at the orchard fence and says "what say we go scrumping". Arrogance is the schoolkid who stand there and says "Come on, my parents own the place".
Just ask and if that doesn't work, just do
To conclude, the best way to get a break is to ask. When I was writing my first piece for The Indie Handbook, I wanted some basic info about my favourite band, The Boxer Rebellion. I e-mailed them for a press pack, and ended up with a half-hour interview. At work, people often ask me how come I seem to get on so many committees. Simple. I ask. If you do it right, it's amazing how rarely people will say no.
Oh, and the very best thing to ask? "Can I help?" You'd be amazed how many doors that one opens. Plus it's the most rewarding thing of all actually to do.
So if you want action points, I guess they'd be these:
1. keep your ear to the ground
2. make sure you put yourself in the places where things happen (leading blogs and forums in your field, for example)
3. look inside, find "your" voice (using twitter a lot, and letting yourself emerge, is a great way to do this), and turn up the volume
4. when an opportunity comes along, ask!
5. be courteous to everyone; be helpful to everyone; act like you belong; never be arrogant; don't take yourself too seriously.
Go on, see what you can do today if you ask nicely!