Journalist Nicola Slawson explains how Positive News inspired her to think differently about her dream career
In Steve Jobs’ famous university commencement speech before he died, the founder of Apple talked of how he couldn’t connect the dots of his career going forward. It was only on reflection he was able to fully appreciate how each little twist in the road ultimately led him to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history.
This has stuck with me since I first watched that speech. I’m not as wildly successful as Jobs, nor will I ever be as rich, but I am currently living my longest held ambition – to be a journalist for the national press. Looking back, I can see that my former careers in arts management and teaching English abroad helped to develop the skills that I needed. However, as far as journalism goes, Positive News was my alma mater.
It’s impossible for me to list everything that my internship and consequent employment with Positive News taught me about journalism, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. From the importance of networking, to ensuring you get both sides of a story, to looking at press releases with a cynical eye to picking up the phone and talking to people – I learnt the ropes of journalism in an unlikely setting. I say unlikely, because it really was drilled into every journalism student on my MA Newspaper Journalism course that news isn’t news unless it’s bad. I even overheard the journalism lecturers at City University – which is touted as the “bootcamp for Fleet Street” – say things like, “that can’t be the front page splash because good news just isn’t news”. I disagree of course. I believe there are so many great stories to be told, good or bad.
“A good journalist should be able to write movingly about a disaster one day, and then explore solutions in another piece the next. Newspapers can and should show that balance.”
On my first day as a Positive News intern I was asked to start sourcing leads for potential stories. I would scour the web and at first, until I got the hang of it, I would send the ideas to the editor. He would email back with a note to say whether I was on the right lines, or perhaps that we’d covered a story before, or he would ask why I thought a particular story or idea would work for our audience and our style of journalism. I was often asked to really think, is this actually positive? Good news can sometimes be as misleading as the bad.
I quickly picked up what kinds of stories make a news story or feature worthy of further investigation. Even this small task taught me the importance of reading widely as a journalist. When picking up a newspaper you would never read, there’s a surprising amount of stories you can turn on their head and look for the solution to the problem presented – or if it’s something positive, you can start investigating whether it’s a trend.
Some of the articles I have written for Positive News that make me proud are the stories where I looked at a particular problem that was dominating the news and then wrote about the people, or the organisations, trying to solve it. An example of this is the first piece I had published about a film that aimed to highlight the beauty of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A British corporation, Soco International plc, wanted to explore for oil and it was thought this would not only ruin a precious place but also continue to destabilise the already turbulent region. What makes it stand out for me is that so many other news stories at the time were so focused solely on fear that they missed out on the opportunity to celebrate why this incredible place was worth fighting for in the first place. To top it off I was lucky enough to write the follow up when the corporation decided to pull out and campaigners were rejoicing at their success.
To go from this to the MA was a baptism of fire. I felt conflicted when writing my first ‘negative’ news article. Was I going against my values? What kind of journalist did I want to be? Ultimately I knew I wanted to be the best journalist that I could be, so I decided to embrace the course and learn everything I could from the experience.
Now that I no longer work for Positive News, and am writing for national newspapers such as the Guardian, I do write stories that would never pass the positive test. But there’s definitely balance as well. Some of the features I’ve written explore solutions and there are news articles with constructive elements. I’ve even managed to do some straight positive news stories like how plastic bag usage in Scotland reduced dramatically after the 5p charge was brought in. Even so, I’m happy with the not-so-positive too where I’ve been able to highlight a really important issue that deserves attention.
I believe the role journalism plays in holding power to account is fundamental and that when things go wrong, we should shout about it. Even so I also believe that I shouldn’t have to choose to be either a negative journalist or a positive one. A good journalist should be able to write movingly about a disaster one day, and then explore solutions in another piece the next. Newspapers can and should show that balance.
I still see valuable stories everywhere that I know people would want to read about if only editors would give them an opportunity. The reality is that without Positive News, many amazing stories would never see the light of day, and many other journalists will start their careers not realising that those stories are just as worthy of their attention as the others.
As the team inch closer to their overfunding target, after surpassing their original goal today, it’s worth pointing out that every extra penny they raise will enable them to not only tell these stories but also train new journalists like me to see the news value in them in the first place.
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Photo title: Nicola Slawson (r) handing out copies of Positive News
Photo credit: © Positive News