Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘journalism degree

A very thorough review of my university journalism degree course

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Introduction
I did an undergraduate degree at Bournemouth University, where I studied from 2009-2012, leaving with a B.A in Multimedia Journalism.

Bournemouth University has one of the UK’s best media schools, and its journalism course is one of the top three in the country. I place City University’s journalism degree at the top simply because it’s in London and has a closer connection to the industry; enjoying the best speakers, guest lecturers and professional links. Rounding out the top three is the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), whose journalism course is one of the most venerable in the country.

I did not go to City University because at the time they did not do just a journalism degree, it was Journalism with History, and because Bournemouth Uni happens to be by the sea and didn’t look as depressing a location as Preston, where UCLAN is situated.

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Of all the jobs I’ve had…

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Perhaps the nicest was the summer job I had picking apples. I was 19 at the time. The farm manager would pick us up in the morning in a tractor, and drop us off to where we’d be working that day, on a row of apple trees ripe for picking. We’d work until dusk, taking breaks whenever we wanted.

It was 2008. I’d returned from ten months teaching English in China and I was looking to earn some money, ready for another stint abroad. I’d start university the following year, where I’d read multimedia journalism.

We were paid 80 pence a box. We each had a black marker we used to initial every box we filled, leaving them out in a row for the farmhand to pick up later in his tractor. The boxes were not large, but the apples were not big either. The old ladies who owned the farm always gave us tips and covered our transportation costs; train fare in my case. But we did not make much.

Alongside me were a bunch of geezers who for whatever reason chose to work this late summer job. For lunch we’d eat our sandwiches and crisps and whatever else we’d packed. And of course we ate apples. Lots of apples. When it was time to take a break, I’d pick an apple from a tree, sit myself down, and eat an apple. Among our heads, there were apples ripening in the sun. We’d hear apples falling on the ground. Sometimes they’d fall on your head, and it hurt a little bit.

As the summer wore on, I’d have dreams of apples. They’d be yellow and red and warm. And I would dream the sound of apples falling to the ground, a sound I can hear still. A low thud, a compact thud, that often came one thud after the other, like a weighty round earth striking a far larger earth, and gravity would ring out the little’s earth slight hollowness.

*

It was 2011, and I’d sit alone in my room in a house full of people. Six people and three floors. I was in my second year of university. I’d travel to London every week, spending two nights, attending a free journalism course where I’d hone my pitching skills. This was on top of my journalism degree. I did not work especially hard in my second year. Not on my journalism degree work anyway.

In my second year, I wrote music reviews for a website who would send me CDs in the post. I kept a film blog and I’d go watch movies at the movie theatre alone, keeping notes in the dark, and then write about the film for my blog. I’d submit these reviews to another website which paid me on the basis of view counts.

In that year, I accumulated Microsoft Word files. I accrued more and more sentences and paragraphs. I did not do much reporting in my second year of uni. You might think that strange, but a journalism degree doesn’t actually provide much reporting practice or training. But what I did do was write a lot. It was what you would call a formative year.

*

I’m sitting in a Costa Coffee in Beijing, and it’s 2015. I’ve accumulated lots of bylines. But in the past few months I’ve felt little progress. I’ve achieved a few things, in my freelance journalism career. But I am looking forward to going home. For Christmas. I look forward to maybe going to Scotland, to hike in mountains of snow. I look forward to this as much as I worry that I’ll squander away the time leading up to December.

Amid all this, for whatever reason, the memory of that summer, where I picked apples for a living, arrives abruptly in my head, a thud on my consciousness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 30, 2015 at 10:00 am

A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first 5 paid-for articles

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The idea for this blog post comes from reader Sam Shan who asked via email about how, when you’re starting out, you first start asking for payment and how to negotiate this aspect of getting paid for your writing. I replied with my advice. A background blog post about my beginning days and my first five published articles for which I got paid I thought would be a good structure in which I could detail my thoughts and struggles of negotiating payment. As well as the stuff I did for free that were beneficial in other ways. Before anything though I will say this, always, always, at least try to get paid for your writing, the sooner the better really. And thanks to Sam for this post’s topic!

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Is It Worth Doing Journalism Work Experience?

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For my degree in multimedia journalism, I was required to do during the duration of my course a minimum of 4 weeks of work experience. My first ever bout of journalism work experience came earlier though, when I was 17 and still at college doing my A-levels.

At the time I was unsure of what I should do at university – I was good at English and good at writing. Although creative writing interested, I knew deep down that I was incapable of fiction and journalism took on more appeal.

At The Guardian offices, on work experience,  September, 2012.

At The Guardian offices, on work experience, September, 2012.

So I asked a staff member at college to help me arrange work experience with my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer. I spent a week at the newspaper and managed to gain three bylines. Two lessons stick out from that week: 1. That you could source a story from the Yellow Pages (remember those?) – a lesson not that useful now but opened up my awareness of how stories and sources can be located & 2. How powerful use of language can be and how even a slight variation in word choice can influence readers.

After that week ended I grew more attached to journalism and its raggedy, amateur art.

When it came time to select courses and universities, my stepfather and I went on a tour of the different journalism degrees. Some presentations were much better than others. Some were downright off-putting. It came down to two choices: City University in London and Bournemouth University. At the time City Uni did not do only a journalism BA. It was History with Journalism. Bournemouth Uni appealed as it taught multimedia journalism which was NCTJ approved and because it was by the sea.

Anyway, I deferred for a year, taking a gap year which eventually turned into two. I started my course at age 20.

A list of media work experience/internships that I did from 2009-2012:

  • The Brighton Argus
  • Splash News
  • The Press Association
  • Catch22
  • The Guardian
  • The Beijinger

The Press Association (video department) was a great experience as I got the opportunity to interview Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and MPs, participate in a press scrum and attend a beer festival. The UK’s national news agency has a great scheme that if I had pushed more, perhaps I could have got on to, but it would have required a three year commitment or thereabouts.

The Guardian work experience was offered to me by the editor as I had written a couple of articles for her previously (unpaid) and so they gave me a week. It was a dream to enter The Guardian’s gleaming offices near King’s Cross, London and I saw a couple of journalists I’ve long admired.

It is very much worth doing work experience, but in my opinion it is not worth doing it overmuch. You can also get lucky. A few coursemates of mine got jobs from them, and one of them is now editor at a major publication. It can also be helpful to gain contacts as it can make it easier to pitch later on. An acquaintance here in Beijing occasionally writes for Esquire (UK) as he once interned for them.

It will really help your time on your internship if you can pitch story ideas. Do not be afraid to suggest ideas to your editor. It shows initiative, charm and power. Anyone who has a store of good ideas is a source of power for a creative outlet. You will be seen in a much better light if you have the confidence to pitch and the boldness to articulate them. You lose nothing. Even if your ideas are not accepted, do not lose hope, it only takes one to strike for you to be given an opportunity.

It helps if the staff like you too. I have found in my experience that if the staff take a shine to you, they will overlook any deficiencies or weaknesses you may have simply because they like having you around in the office. Do not underestimate how important this is. Having good social skills is a skill and intelligence in itself. And those who possess it have an equally legitimate skill as those good with numbers or a facility for study.

Smog’s lesson in reselling freelance stories

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That time I spent every week going to London to practice pitching

One reason you shouldn’t study a journalism degree is to learn how to freelance. J-school is woeful at teaching the mechanics, processes and techniques of successful freelance journalism. A much better way of learning is to buy a couple of books on it, practice what they teach and start doing it. Freelancing workshops can be pricey but worthwhile.

In the second year of my journalism degree I spent a couple days every week, for 12 weeks, attending another journalism course in London (which is three hours away from my university).

On this course, at the start of every class, we were asked to pitch ideas for magazine stories. To begin with our ideas were plagiaristic, rudimentary and not much different than the headlines we’d noted on the various news websites we checked.

Over the duration of the program however, as the weeks wore on, and we became used to the habit of pitching and coming up with ideas for stories our skills noticeably improved. The slant of our headlines steadily grew more sophisticated, our angles more acute, our ideas more original.

Who knows what quantifiable difference it made to our progression but I do believe that that weekly exercise irrevocably strengthened mine and my cohort’s ability to think up story ideas and to think in such a way that allowed us to be creative in a strict form – that of the story pitch.

In the classroom in London. For more on my time on this course, you can read this: http://wannabehacks.co.uk/2011/07/13/lu-hai-liang-catch-22-review-the-social-enterprise-journalism-placement/

That time my journalism tutor said something profound about freelancing

Back at university, we were given a couple of lessons in freelancing, which were superficial and lackluster, but one thing a tutor said stuck with me.

“The trick”, he would say, on more than one occasion, “is not to sell 17 ideas to one publication. The trick is to sell one idea 17 times”.

It has taken me some time to fully understand what that meant, and just how you do that.

Along the way I listened to an editor talk about a friend who was brilliant at selling off different parts of an interview to different publications: “He’d interview Nick Cohen and he’d ask him some questions about being Jewish and sell that to The Jewish Chronicle; he’d ask him about the war [Iraq] and sell that to a political magazine”, and so on…

The point

What is missing in these lessons is how to repackage and resell an existing idea. It is what one freelance I heard refer to as ‘re-nosing’.

The fact is you cannot re-pitch the exact same idea again – you have to adapt it, change it up, modify, refocus the angle, sell in in a different format…there are lots of ways you can mine existing ideas or articles you’ve written to make more business.

In my experience, what I’ve done on Beijing’s air pollution problem – described sometimes as ‘smog’ – is a clear example. It all started as an article about how Asia can be a job opportunity for graduates. One of the sources for that story became a profile feature for a business magazine. I adapted the angle so that it became a news feature when the smog got bad again…and so on. Below are the headlines and stand-firsts of the different stories which hopefully demonstrates what I mean more clearly:

Does Asia hold the answer to your graduate career hunt? [link]

Doing business in China: Lu-Hai Liang speaks to the founder of a successful Beijing-based startup about what it’s like running a company there [link]

The expats offering a breath of fresh air in polluted Beijing [link]

Related –

Why is China such fertile ground for young, ambitious Brits? Young British people are choosing to emigrate to China, armed with strategies for chasing success. Why? [link]

The other Jamie on a food mission: Meet the chef teaching people in the East to love Western food [link]

Flying the flag for the best of British in China: A young English woman who forged a successful career in China after moving there as a teenage is now promoting British brands to wealthy shoppers in Beijing [link]