“Wannabe Hacks - finding a route into UK journalism” - Nick Petrie & Ben Whitelaw at Hacks/Hackers London

 by Martin Belam, 26 April 2012

Last night was the monthly Hacks/Hackers London meet-up organised by Joanna Geary and Jonathan Richards. I’ve already published my notes on Maha Rafi Atal talking about “Supporting public interest business journalism”. The other talk on the night was Nick Petrie and Ben Whitelaw of Wannabe Hacks.

“Wannabe Hacks - finding a route into UK journalism” - Nick Petrie & Ben Whitelaw

Nick Petrie & Ben Whitelaw are two of five original Wannabe Hacks, who set up a website describing their attempts to get jobs in journalism. It has been a massive success, both personally, since they’ve all ended up with jobs in the profession, and as a resource for other people trying to get into the business. Nick said that essentially it had been something to do in their spare time whilst they were job hunting, and described it as “a project that got out of hand.”

Nick and Ben mentioned that I had been one of the people they had contacted about the idea for advice in advance, and that my suggestion to just get going had helped them launch rather than get bogged down in the detail. I’ve actually dug out the original email correspondence from August 2010. Here is what I wrote back to Ben when they sent me pitch documents for ideas of two different websites:

“Very good documents on setting up a website and identifying an audience. My biggest piece of advice to you would be just get started. Tomorrow. Start getting content up on a free Wordpress install whilst you look for someone who can help you buy a domain name and set up your own Wordpress on it. Custom design for news is over-rated - we have hundreds of templates at The Guardian, but it is the content that drives the page views, pick a theme that gets close to what you want. Both the ideas rely on the content, not the visual design of the site. I like the fact that you've thought about 'About us' page and profiles, but these can just be blog posts with the comments turned off. You are showing a lot of initiative in pro-actively contacting people about the idea, so get going...”

In the end, they said, the original version they launched with took about an hour to set up. Nick described the genesis of the idea as being frustration with the advice they were being given about how to get into journalism. They could see that digital was transforming the tools that journalists use, and they could see from the state of the industry that traditional jobs were disappearing, and new career roles were opening up. But they were still pretty much being given careers advice from the Kelvin MacKenzie school of thought of “do your NCTJ, work on a local for a couple of years, work on a regional, hope to get picked up by the nationals”. It is a career path that increasingly no longer exists.

Getting the profile of the site to grow quickly was, they said, all about “being social”. They got involved in communities discussing journalism, and sites like Fleet Street Blues and people like Andy Dickinson quickly picked up on the site’s existence. Pestering my colleague Kerry Eustace got them the chance to mention the blog in the Guardian, and things grew from there. They explained that they also carefully @-tweeted high profile people when they had articles they thought would specifically appeal to them. Ben said they were “being a bit cheeky, but in a justified sense because we were doing something quite different.”

They explained that one of the things that helped them get going was that it was a group effort. Ben described the workload of going out for the night as a student, and then coming home a little worse for wear, and then having to come up with an idea and write a blog post until 3am. Having five of them meant that workload was shared, and if one of them was particularly under pressure and couldn’t get something written, someone else would step in to help out. They also quite early on hit on the concept of the guest blog post - a way to generate extra content and to get users to emotionally invest in going back to read a blog that they themselves had contributed to.

The site has ended up shaping their formative careers in journalism. None of the five has a “traditional” role, they are all filling new types of digital position in newsrooms. “I wanted to be a sports reporter”, said Ben, “and sit in the best seat in the house and write my 800 whimsical words. That’s changed massively, entirely because of Wannabe Hacks and the skills I’ve learned doing this.”

In terms of giving advice to people thinking of similarly starting up websites, they suggested being part of a group helped you gain more traction, and to be aware that not all potential employers are “savvy” to this kind of thing being on your CV. There are still people who want to see thousands of words in cuttings as evidence you can write, they explained. Whatever route you take into journalism, you are going to need to be able to pitch ideas and write well.

Where the site had been strong, they said, had been in sharing their personal stories of the disappointments along the way as well as the success. A post by Ben about failing to get onto the Telegraph’s graduate training scheme had been painful to write, but allowed the audience to feel that they were not the only ones worrying about failure or struggling to see a way forward.

Nick showed off some forthcoming “how to” guides that the team have produced under the Wannabe Hack brand. A brand, incidentally, which they mentioned Paul Bradshaw had criticised, saying that for SEO purposes it should have been called “I want to be a journalist”

The site is now being written by a new crop of wannabes, and I have to say that it does give me a wry Currybet’s law smile that the Wannabe Hacks have set up a thing they asked me for advice about, and now it involves Doctor Who-esque regeneration of the cast :-)


The next Hacks/Hackers London meet-up is on Wednesday 23 May, and don’t forget, in the meantime, you can pick up my Kindle compilation of notes from previous Hacks/Hackers London meet-ups.

Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks brings together notes from 16 talks, including those from Martin Rosenbaum, Stephen Grey, Alastair Dant, Scott Byrne-Fraser and Wendy Grossman. It looks at topics of interest to journalists and programers alike, including freedom of information, processing big data sets to tell stories, social activism hack camps, the future of interactive technologies, and using social media to cover your tracks - or uncover those of somebody else.
Hacks/Hackers London: Notes from the talks for Kindle is £1.14.

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