The fundamentals of great reporting
by John Simpson, political editor, BBC
So, what makes a good reporter? Well, there are a number of qualities that you’ll need and among them are a real sense of curiosity; a profound interest in details and that real instinct that makes you want to grab people by the lapels and tell them what you’re doing.
When I see someone who has those of qualities, I know they’re someone I’d want to work with and that they’re going to succeed.
Once you’ve on top of whatever it is you’re covering, I think the key is to stay with it. It’s easier sometimes to follow the temptation to leave, but I think the key thing is just to stick with it and not panic, despite what you hear or what all the other journalists do. Journalists in numbers are often like sheep and they panic easily when rumours sear through the system about what’s going to happen when a story breaks.
In my experience, it’s best to stay, hang on a little longer and keep going. I feel I’ve kept on going in my career when things were hard, when I didn’t see much of a future and it’s that endurance that gets you the prizes in the end.
For many, it’s getting in that is key. Most readers, I’m sure, are already all to aware that the doors are going to be closed. Journalism is a nasty, clubby little outfit which judges people on all the wrong sorts of judgements, like who they know, how old they are and what their background is as opposed to what they are themselves. But it’s one of those things you just have to accept and understand. If you can understand it and sort of accept it – not that that’s in any way an easy thing to do – then I think, very slowly, you tend to get there.
Journalism is very much a business where the problems lay early on. So ‘Don’t give up too soon!’ It does take bit of time to get yourself known and to get yourself respected and until that happens, you’re not going to get an awful lot of work in the mainstream – that’s why Greatreporter.com is a lovely idea because it has stepped in to bridge the gap, in part.
An impressive portfolio is critical to your initial success in passing those doors. The quality of the stories you produce for that portfolio far outweigh the locations you are writing them from. If you’re based in England and you uncover criminal activity in Bradford and write it up well, it would be better than going off to Argentina and covering something everyone else had gone to cover.
However, once you have a sufficiently impressive portfolio of published work the market poses an additional problem in attaining work at the moment, and that is the state of the market.
From my own perspective, and I am involved in radio and television, I can say that both of these fields are still growth industries.
There are more television stations starting up and succeeding, with Bloomberg, the financial news channel being a prime example. Bloomberg was nothing just a few years ago before it came to London, which incidentally remains capital of the global news industry. Companies like Bloomberg that have made the right moves are on the way up and that means they need staff. The BBC too is going to be looking for younger people, because it’s younger people who give it the sort of enthusiasm and the staying power it needs.
So go to these organisations and bang on doors. Go in and see people, don’t be put off. Be prepared to stand around and be treated like dirt and all the other things that these characters often enjoy doing while you sit there with your head down giving it your all. “One day” may seem like a hell of a long time when you’re in your early twenties, but when you get to my age you realise what a short trip it was and how quickly your career progresses, whereas at the time, it seemed like an eternity of waiting.
In terms of studying to enter journalism, I think most of the related courses out there are reasonably good. There are some very serious courses and some very serious teachers like my former boss, Ian Hargreaves [Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University and former Editor of The Independent]. He is now the doyenne of all university journalism teachers.
It’s always going to be a temptation to continue studying rather than to begin your professional career in earnest because academia affords you another few years in which to think things over and try to find a way of making a living.
If the doors don’t open first time, you think: “Well I’ll go back and study for a few years and I’ll come back afterwards,” but of course, things aren’t necessarily going to be any easier if you do. You gain a great deal from academic courses but I think you gain more from getting a job first off. Well, good luck trying!
Once you get yourself in, you have to accustom yourself to the traditional working system wherever you end up. It’s not necessarily the right way to do it, but it’s the only way in the early stages that everyone will demand you do it. Keep a sense of your own individuality and when you see traditional methods of working are a lot of nonsense, just bide your time until such time as you can change it.
What key skills should you bring with you? Well, I think it’s difficult to do the job without being able to speak a few languages and without being able to write in shorthand, though personally, I never learnt it. I wish I had it because it could have come in quite handy, but in some ways not having it makes you quicker on your feet and more resourceful, according to my own prejudice. I wish I had studied languages at university but sadly languages are less important now that when I was starting out because English is so widely spoken.
Aside from specific skills, something that impresses me are self-starters who have gone and covered a story well using nothing but their nous and determination. These are very often not easy or safe things to do and I think you have to be more careful than your instinct suggests. People will do whatever comes to hand, and they’ll hopefully come back with the goods. Certainly big international stories are often far too cluttered up with people who don’t really know that they’re doing though, and unfortunately, can come a cropper as a result.
The last big example of this was the siege of Sarajevo between 1992-95. Because of its proximity to Western Europe and consequent cheap airfares it quickly filled up with slightly excitable people who were there for a cause. It used to be quite irritating for those of us who were there to report. Having said that, that doesn’t mean anything in the individual case and I think the thing to do is just to avoid the big and obvious examples and go and do something more interesting and harder to do. I would much rather have someone come to me who had just been to Tibet and had got some good material there, rather than someone who had gone to where everybody else was going.
I really do detest that whole business of “going off to war” and I urge young journalists to be careful of it. The term actually quiet offends me because it brings to mind all those kinds of people who think wars are exciting places to make their names. I have little more than contempt for that because wars are simply the nastiest and most dreadful things that happen and for anybody to rub their hands with glee and regard it as a good opportunity I must say I find absolutely despicable. It happens a great deal.
In 1994, during the South African election, when the ANC took power, vast numbers of people, including lots of young reporters who had gone there to make their names, turned up in the hope it was going to turn in to a civil war, as a lot of people said it was going to. They were deeply disappointed when it turned out to be one of the most remarkable political achievements of the 20th Century, and some left for home in disgust. I think to have left one of the most exciting and most remarkable moments in that fashion is its own punishment. As you can probably tell, I’m not very enthusiastic about the whole “gun-ho going off to war would-be war correspondent.”
Have such practices changed the way news works? Not since the middle of the 19th century. I used to talk to my friend, Martha Gellhorn, who was a reporter in the Spanish Civil War. She said it was the same back then with large numbers of enthusiasts who were half cheerleaders and half journalists trying to make a name for themselves, and how irritating she found it all.
Martha felt she had a job to do, rather than a name to make. The focus must be on what’s happening in the place and to the people and the most important thing is not: “I, John Simpson, am there to make a name for myself” this is real life and this is other people’s real lives and it’s not some sort of entertainment that’s been put up for one’s own benefit to make a name from. I don’t want anything to do with people like that.
Saying that, I do condone the enthusiasm real young professionals show. I really wished I’d done more of it myself but when I was just staring out but I got married and briefly settled down: not the best thing in a sense for somebody who really had to make his way in the world.
My wife (now ex-wife) and I had two children and for quite some time – five or six years – I was a dutiful wage earner and husband. It was a mistake I never made again.
Putting my family and life in London first meant I didn’t go to Vietnam, which I really, really should have done. I didn’t go to the Prague spring of 1968, and I didn’t go to Paris for the student riots, all of which I would have done for the BBC or on my own account. It was only after 1970, when I’d been with the BBC for four years that I started to take real risks. I went to Northern Ireland for the first time, and everything proceeded from there. It was a slow start and I feel there were early years in my career that I really wasted. I really wish I’d had a bit more determination.
You have to be careful to get your priorities right.
Get it right and the awards and prizes come. Neither should be very important to reporters, but it is very nice to get them and very frustrating when you don’t.
I’ve sat in award ceremonies when I know how much hard work I’ve done, for instance, during the revolutions of 1989 and 90, when the Berlin Wall came down and all the different Eastern European countries collapsed. I was the only person on earth who covered all of those stories one after the other and did them moderately well. I sat at some big awards ceremony and heard the award go to somebody who had covered a quarter of it and had actually left most of the hard work to their producer to do.
Of course, you feel like saying: “Damn! That belonged to me,” but if that’s why you’re in it that’s the wrong motivation; so you smile when the camera’s on you, grin, clap enthusiastically and think to yourself: “Next year I’ll do better.”
What is interesting – and I have found this time and time again – is that people quickly forget your achievements. The reporting business in general is not about you but what you’ve gone to see. Of course, you want people to like everything you do, but that’s not the important thing. Telling everybody what’s going on is and if they remember you, they tend to remember the story if you’ve done a good enough job.
Can a real journalist ever retire? I don’t know. I’m not sure I count as a real journalist. Personally, I don’t want to.
Martha Gellhorn was still writing about street kids in Rio at the age of 88. But it depends on your health; it depends on your family. Martha was going blind and she was very poorly towards the end, but she managed to get there and did the job.
By the time I’m 88 I’m sure everybody will have long forgotten me and if I tried to do something I don’t suppose I would succeed. It’s just a question of luck really and the luck is mainly to do with physical endurance and sticking with it.