English undergraduate Fred Johnson has been chatting to James Kidd – an alumni of the University’s English Department who is now a freelance journalist writing for titles including the Independent On Sunday and the Literary Review. He recently spoke to students at the University at a Journalism Showcase event – part of the Careers in Writing Series in the School of the Arts.
What made you want to go into journalism?
“I would love to say the glamour, international travel, money, and chance to share a room with Jeffrey Archer. But honestly, in practical terms, it was largely accidental – a part-time job that gradually took over. What makes me stay in journalism (beyond the glamour) is the chance to make a living from two of the things I love most – writing and reading books. As a freelancer, there is also a flexibility to my working week which I would find hard to give up, both in terms of working hours and the pleasant surprises that cross my path. It is a challenging job, especially right now, but one that rarely ends in boredom.”
What was your first journalism job?
“Apart from some frankly terrifying articles written at Liverpool, it was working for the Hampstead and Highgate newspaper in north London – initially writing about books and later interviewing local celebs. I was a freelancer but wrote every week for them in one way or another.”
What qualifications did you pursue?
“My academic degrees to an unfinished PhD. I have never studied journalism, which doubtless shows every time I submit an article.”
What advice would you give to current students?
“Write, write and write. When you are not writing, read good writing. I found I am happiest writing about a subject I feel passionately about. But be prepared to write about anything, often for scant rewards. Don’t give up. Persistence, both long-term and short, is 50% of the job. Journalism isn’t so much brutal as over-crowded. Editors are inundated but always prepared to give anyone a go who has a good story idea and has a prose style that knows how to get from A-B. Be pushy – don’t just email. Find out a contact and give them a call.”
What made you go to University?
“The desire to meet people who did not just go to my school and therefore had a chance of being interesting. To get away from where I grew up, live in a far more interesting city, and to spend three years reading books, writing about them and then discussing them at annoying volumes in pubs across Liverpool.”
What did you do at University that helped you get to where you are now?
“Without wishing to labour a motif – reading, reading, reading. Also writing, though that was much harder. Learning to type badly but sort of quickly was genuinely vital. The discipline of writing essays at the last minute and getting through exams has proved the ideal training for journalism. Working under pressure but trying to remember that it is enjoyable. Learning to structure an argument, use quotes and trying to sound interesting or at least vaguely competent has helped. The same goes for a passion for books. And that ability to talk loudly in pubs hasn’t hurt. Well, not often.”
When did you attend the University of Liverpool?
“My dates were, I think, 1990 to 1995 – I stayed on to do an MA in English Lit. The Renaissance and Romantics MA as it was then. ”
How was your time at University?
“I want to avoid the old cliché of university days being the happiest of your life, but for me they were, in many ways. I was one of those students who was transformed by their degree. Having one subject to concentrate on in all its variety helped. As did the fact that English was that subject. The English department of the time took it as read (if you’ll pardon the pun) that literature was significant and reading an important activity to consider your life and the world around you. Writing too was not simply the functional business of writing an essay good enough for a 2.1, but a stylistic exercise and an act of discovery in itself.
“In some ways, literary journalism has enabled me to extend all of these different areas – independent study, reading, writing, cultural debate. Sadly, the pay isn’t all that different to being a student. But free books help. The best bit of the job is reading wonderful books I would never normally touch. Even better is getting the chance to talk to the people who wrote them. I have just this morning talked to Thomas Keneally for almost two hours. Not a bad way to spend your morning. “
What was it like returning for the Journalism Showcase?
“The journalism showcase was fascinating and inspiring – and a little sobering. I still can’t quite believe I am not a student! But it was wonderful to meet so many smart and energetic people. Journalism is, I think, a very different job than it was when I began, but in some ways it is all the better for it. The job market may be even more insecure, but the opportunities for self-expression are perhaps unprecedented. Much of this – blogs, podcasts etc – will go unrewarded financially, but the work can be extraordinarily good. More than anything, it provides a wonderful training ground to try things out without needing to ask permission; to succeed or fail, and most of all to learn.”
By Fred Johnson