The inside track—insights into the media sector with Susan Grossman

Today sees the second of our ‘inside track’ industry interviews: we chat with Susan Grossman, lecturer in journalism; writing mentor; and career and workplace coach.

She provides an insight into the challenges in the media and communication sector from a journalist’s point of view as part of Lexis®PSL Commercial’s industry and sector series.

How did you come to work in the media sector?

By accident, I went for a job on Which? magazines in my early twenties and loved the idea of championing causes and helping consumers make decisions based on independent advice.

After that I went freelance but was determined to find out what it was like to work in radio and TV. The consumer tag has stuck. There’s always stuff to tell readers about, especially on my three favourite subjects: health, travel and food.

What attracted you to this particular area?

The media is a powerful medium. A good journalist investigates on behalf of their audience—which can inform every area of their lives. I hate people wasting money, whether it’s a washing machine, garage servicing or a holiday. Investigating comes naturally to me, so to do it on behalf of several hundred thousand readers seems worthwhile.

OK, I know the press has got a lot wrong over the years, but most journalists have a core integrity, something the public appears to ignore.

How does this fit into your career history?

I’ve had a lot of fun as a freelancer, in charge of my own workload and destiny. But there have been contracted jobs along the way—a four-day week editing a magazine for a publisher, producing radio programmes for the BBC. Years ago, you never undertook any freelance work without a formal contract. Negotiating terms was always a bit of a minefield, especially rights. These days most people want ‘All Rights’ but I tell all my journalism students that editors don’t buy ideas...just words. So if you have a good story you can always re-jig it for different audiences. A case-study story or a scoop is different, of course. Newspapers generally will want an ‘exclusive’ but will pay more as a result.

Freelancing is a business, and anyone embarking on it should consider themselves to be an entrepreneur (or even a brand). The key is to know the difference between agreeing to offer your time for money (say, on a day rate) or whether you are handing over the product of your work.

All the jobs I’ve ever had have been as a result of networking. I don’t think I’ve ever filled in an application form. Among the best was reporting in the early days of BBC Breakfast, sitting on the coach with Selina Scott and discussing how to check cots abroad so that toddler’s heads wouldn’t get stuck (I’d just published my first book ‘Have Kids, Will Travel’). I love radio and spent 15 years reporting for Radio 4 Breakaway, lugging a huge tape recorder round the world in an attempt to capture the ‘sound’ of holidays—creaky doors of churches, the orchestra tuning up at the opera in Verona and, less easily, water lapping on Lake Garda.

Presenting Food & Drink for two years for BBC 2 was a great experience, especially when things went wrong. I once put the Christmas Turkey in the ‘set’ oven, only to hear a clunk, as it fell out down the open back! There was also a spell as a Magazine Editor at Redwood Publishing, where I also produced a book on the top hotels in Britain. My most enjoyable job of all was being a hotel inspector for the British Tourist Authority Commendation Scheme.

Interviewing people is perhaps what started my interest in coaching and mentoring. I remember discovering that Dame Barbara Cartland lived on a diet of ‘salmon’ shaped pills; persuading Gracie Fields to sing on the promenade in Capri and Patrick Lichfield admitting that he was blind in one eye, and that if he hadn’t been a photographer he would have been a tree surgeon.

Now I spent a lot of my working with a new generation of journalists, and helping senior journalists adapt to the digital age and coaching individuals in career progression.

I lecture on the MA journalism at Westminster University (have done for 12 years) and on short evening courses at City University, and at the City Lit, where I also run a summer school in travel writing. Having completed my training in coaching and mentoring (ILM) I coach individuals on career or publishing, run workshops on social media marketing, and regular freelance cafe drop-in sessions to help working journalists get commissions and increase their earning capacity.

What do you think are the key challenges and opportunities facing your sector?

The challenge the media faces is the speed of the internet, and the rapid advances in technology. While we all know that news breaks on Twitter, there is still a role for print, especially magazines. It appears that people still like to have something to hold, whether it is a quality specialist magazine or the ever popular weekly TV guide.

The important development is in ‘illustration’. No story gets published without some sort of accompanying graphic, photo or video. Reporting will become, I think, even more visual. Apart from learning to ‘code’ journalists will need a good eye for visual content.

How do you see your industry developing over the next five years and beyond?

As a consumer journalist I see information coming in from all directions without verification. Sadly I suspect that the media will become even more ‘person-centred’. And what we will be offered to read is the icing on the world’s cake that pulls at our emotions and satisfies our lust for celebrity. I would like to think that the media will have less of a role in judging what we want to read. On the other hand, the internet is a publisher in itself. We will have access to every corner of the globe and anyone who wants to will be able to contribute. My worry is that while we need to celebrate freedom of expression, we will have to be wary of the media’s alignments to political interests, and a world that is so ‘content’ led that the boundary between fact and fantasy is even further blurred.

We will always need thorough, independent research. Academics (and lawyers) will just have to get used to presenting the conclusions more succinctly. If they want to be quoted in the press they need to be pro-active speedily.

Have you seen any changes to your audience?

Yes. Newspaper audiences now want a quick fix from the media. Their attention span is about as long as two stops on the tube. TV programmes, advertisers and the tabloids are designed to get maximum viewing figures. While there is much fine writing out there, in the way of long form journalism and columnists, it is read by a minority. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast channels have all seen changes in demographics, which is why freelance journalists all need to be sure of their audiences by reading the media packs.

What are the key challenges facing your sector and how have you reacted to meet them?

The key challenges to freelance journalists are to get on top of how to use social media and contribute to digital content. They will always have to research effectively, make stories topical, identify reliable experts, and verify sources of information. I have taken my own core skills and have kept up from webinars, attending courses and listening to younger journalists, and fully understand the importance of new technology’s role in the future of the media. A lot of my contemporaries still resist going onto Twitter. To be honest by the time they get round to it, there will be something else.

How do you view the provision of legal advice in the media sector?

Finding out the legal position in every story is essential. Many freelancers forget that they are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of their content. I use newsletters from law firms like Wiggin LLP for leads and interpretation of stories. And many large law firms have good blog sites. The law needs to be understood by anyone who calls themselves a journalist, especially an investigative one. There would be no point in spending time researching a story unless the perpetrators were suspected of breaking the law.

What do you expect from media lawyers?

I would expect media lawyers to protect the journalists who contribute to publications they oversee, and protect the public from misinformation.

Are there any features of interactions with lawyers that you’d like to change?

It might be useful to journalists to see how media lawyers work in terms of seeing the sort of feedback they give to publishers. Many journalists have their contributions pulled at the last minute, without knowing why. It would help educate journalists, especially those who have not been through formal training (where law and ethics are on the curriculum) to become more responsible for their content, accusations, implications and how their reporting can impact on the livelihoods and reputation of those they write about.

Interviewed by Anne Bruce. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor. This interview first appeared in Lexis®PSL Commercial and was conducted on 1 May 2014.

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