Freelance Journalist

September 9, 2019 (Updated )

What’s life like as a senior hack in fast-paced digital news? And what does it take to make a good story better?

Speaking to Journo Resources, Mirror Online’s Tom Davidson talks tips, tenacity, and why you shouldn’t be scared to pick up the phone…

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Did you always want to be a journalist?

I can’t say that I did, but it was always something that vaguely interested me. I was always asking questions. I think teachers got a bit fed up with me because I was always that one with my hand up…

I never really thought about journalism as a career until I was 19 or 20, when I thought this could be something that I could actually do and be good at.

What triggered that?

When I was 17, I was the editor of my school newspaper for about a year – and we only put out one edition. It was very much an amateur effort, but it was good fun. You do learn the basics.

And then I was really just doing nothing. But there was a journalism course, and my mum knew that I had this casual interest. She basically said, you do this course or you’re out on your ear. 

She offered to help financially, so I trained in Newcastle and the next thing I knew I was on my way –  a junior at the North Wales Weekly News.

What’s a typical day for you?

My job is largely office-based; there is a general pattern to it. We’ve got to have a team of at least three reporters in, so we work shifts. Today, for example, I’m on late shift, which is 3pm to 11pm, give or take an hour – whatever’s required. 

‘My mum basically said, do this journalism course or you’re out on your ear’ (Image Credit: Supplied)

I’ll turn up with a couple of stories to pitch, things I might have spotted or follow-ups to stuff that did well the previous day. You speak to the news desk about which stories you should be looking into. And then you sit down, you’re assigned stories and you’re on your way.

It’s a fast-paced job. Some days you’re getting through half a dozen stories, because stuff comes in on the wires that you have to verify and second source if you can, or re-nose the copy. But then other days they’ll ask for some of your own things. You’re off-diary for the day, so you just take your time. 

I guess there are no typical days. You can spend your whole time trying to pin down an exclusive line on a story that everyone else has got, or you’ve had a tip-off in email which can be hard to nail down. Other days, it’s a case of getting through your assigned stories.

Want an insight into the daily lives of more journalists? We’ve got you covered. Check out our interview with Amy Cooper, Head of Content at Bauer, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Head of Editorial at gal-dem, and Hitesh Ratna, Head of Content at Sportbible.

What do you think might surprise them about your job?

With the Mirror, it’s how nice everyone is. Newspaper offices tend to have a reputation, but I genuinely love my colleagues and I’m not just saying that – no one’s got a gun to my head. 

We’re a relatively small team, very hard-working with high expectations, but we’re well supported to meet those expectations. 

Editorially speaking, the Mirror Online and the Daily Mirror newspaper are separate teams. But we’re on the same floor, we work next to each other; we’ll pass things on to them and they pass things on to us. 

If other newspapers have a whiff of a story, they’ll say, “let’s get it up online first because we can’t hold it for the paper tomorrow”, and vice versa. It’s a team effort.  

If you could tell someone starting out what to do to get your job one day, what would it be? 

Be tenacious. With the nature of online news, you need to see the line that other people might miss. There might be a quote halfway down in the copy that no one else has spotted. Get that line that no one else has been working on, and spin out a take from that. You have to try and think outside the box to get the exclusive line that makes your story the best.

On the hunt for ideas for stories? Aubrey Allegretti details how to get the scoops – even when you don’t have any contacts yet. Need more inspiration? How about our bucket list for student journalists?

How can you spot a future star?

The thing that marks out a superstar hack is enthusiasm for a good story, and dogged determination. And there’s intuition, and follow-through. When someone is thorough, they’ll go the extra mile to really make a story the best that it can be.

A lot of our job involves being told no, or no comment. It can seem like you’re on a hiding to nothing but you have to put the calls in nonetheless. Hassle people, be specific when asking them questions rather just vaguely asking for comment. You might get the same answer as everyone else, but it’s crucial that the questions are asked. 

It’s so hard to put my finger on what makes a good journalist into a great journalist. You can get quiet ones who badger away at things, then emerge at the end of the week with a fantastic scoop. Or you get the ones who are – like me – louder and more boisterous. 

Oh… and I still think good shorthand is essential! 

Tom focuses on work for the website. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

What are the bad habits that young journalists should avoid? 

A reluctance to pick up the phone. You’ll often get a story you think that putting in a call is a waste of time – and nine times out of ten, it is. They might tell you no comment, or tell you to f*** off. But it’s your job as journalist to call them. I know it’s hard, but you have to do it. 

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Also, when you’re working through copy from a news agency, sometimes you might think that it doesn’t make sense, or that the angle’s not supported. It’s your job to call the agency and be honest with them, and ask them to clarify. If it doesn’t make sense to you as a journalist, it won’t make sense to the reader.

What does journalism look like three to five years from now?

It’s hard to predict. I reckon there will still be newspapers, but online will be even bigger than it is now. Newspapers are not going to disappear overnight.

The industry may be struggling in places, but there will always be a market for good journalists. I don’t think people need to worry about that.

Featured Image Credit: Tom Davidson / Supplied