Riding the whirlwind

Last updated 16:00 29/01/2014
Kat Duggan
Emma Allen

Express reporter Kat Duggan ready for duty on the press bench at the Blenheim District Court

Kat Duggan
Richard Briggs Photography
It's not all tough: Kat got an assignment covering opening of the blue cod season in the Marlborough Sounds

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Express reporter Kat Duggan writes about her first year working as a journalist. 

Until this year I never really knew what it took to be a journalist.

I finished at Marlborough Girls' College in 2009 and left for university, because that's just what you did.

I went to Victoria University and studied media studies, the subject I most enjoyed at school. I'd originally planned to do a teaching diploma at the end of my degree, but journalism continued to intrigue me.

Journalism was exciting. It seemed to be a bit of a "glamour" career. I imagined endless excitement, travelling the world and meeting and interviewing important people.

The social responsibility aspect of it was also interesting: who else is there to call people to account, expose the injustices of the world and act as a general watchdog?

In movies, books and TV shows, journalists flit from cafe to cafe drinking coffee with not a hair out of place and always an umbrella to pull out when the weather turns.

A year after graduating, I often find myself in the wrong clothes and shoes, and without the money to buy those endless coffees. My hair is never in place.

When I signed up for a National Diploma in Multimedia Journalism at Whitireia Polytechnic I didn't know where to start, or even what it took to be a writer. Of about 10 journalism courses nationwide, I chose Whitireia - the classes were small and every story you did was published online.

If you were lucky, stories were picked up by The Wellingtonian or sometimes the Dominion Post.

To graduate, I had to write a blog, have 35 stories published as well as a feature, pass a media law test, media ethics test, weekly current affairs tests, numeracy tests.

There were also units on bicultural reporting, crime reporting, court reporting, diversity, photography, layout and design, web editing and shorthand.

Simple.

Or so I thought.

Shorthand. What was that? Something I had never seen until I was doing it, and I had to pass two tests at 80 words a minute. The average person speaks anywhere from 110 to 150 words a minute.

Those nine months were fast-paced, full of ups and downs and new challenges and I learnt a lot about the world I was about to immerse myself in.

There was one more hurdle, though - I had to get through a two-week internship in a newsroom.

Nothing had prepared me for that.

So about a year ago, I turned up at the Express office ready for my two weeks in the "real" world.

To be honest, those two weeks were bloody tough. I spent every minute of every day wondering what on Earth I had signed up for.

But with only two months of my journalism diploma to go, there was no going back.

And I'm glad I didn't.

Year one has been a whirlwind of phone calls, writing, blood, sweat, tears, laughter, stress, late nights and more writing.

You have to learn quickly the fundamentals of journalism.

First up, balance: there are at least two sides to every story and no matter how sick you feel about approaching someone about a story you're running, you have to.

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Speed: every day is a race against the clock to get three, four, five stories through, and if it's breaking news it has to be done in minutes to go on the website. Well actually seconds.

If that isn't enough of a challenge, another major factor is accuracy: maintaining this while racing against the clock is often the hardest part of my day. The main thing to remember is check, check and check your facts again.

Then we get on to the hard stuff - criticism. It's hard to please everyone, and they're not afraid to tell you. Developing a thick skin is important.

The ability to keep calm and carry on when someone abuses you or slams the phone down in your ear, or the door in your face, is vital. If not, you'd get beaten down pretty quickly.

Then there's the unpredictability. You need to be prepared for anything and everything - all the time.

Just when you think you're on top of your day and are about to leave for the night, bam, there's an earthquake, or a car crash, or the main source from your lead story rings to say they don't want to be in the paper any more.

What to do next?

On the Friday afternoon of the second Seddon earthquake, I was standing up, about to head for the door with a long weekend beckoning.

Within seconds I was under my desk, holding on to the legs while things came crashing down around me. There was no time for tears; in minutes I was in the car on my way to the quake zone, forgetting my notebook in the rush.

Improvise.

I realised when I reached Seddon that I really had no idea what I was supposed to do, but people needed answers so I had to do something: "Fake it till you make it".

Later that night, I was dead on the floor, thinking about what had transpired. It was only then it dawned on me - I finally knew why I had chosen this career.

People look to the media for reassurance and comfort that everything is going to be OK when it feels their world is caving in.

You provide the answers they need: Where was it? How big was it? Will there be another? Is everyone OK?

Journalists get a pretty bad rap most of the time. People are quick to bag the media and put in the boot, but in times of crisis people need answers.

The truth is you often don't have any, but it's your job to find them.

I'd been at the Express about eight weeks at that point - nothing quite like jumping in at the deep end, right?

I have seen Marlborough, the place I call home, through completely different eyes this year.

Being given the role of court reporter, I have seen an entire world I didn't know existed in this sunny, beautiful town.

There are people I've never seen appearing in court for things I could never imagine were going on here.

There are the lawyers and judges to deal with.

This is where shorthand, the thing I thought I would never use, has become my saviour, because you can't just stop proceedings to ask the judge to repeat what he said.

Outside of court I am a general reporter, I take on whatever is thrown at me, from softer stories about animals, to kids, to stories about rest homes, to wineries to businesses opening and closing.

The most rewarding thing is getting to sit with someone and listen to their story.

It's a privileged position. It's often the stories that I expect to be more straightforward that turn out to be some of the most amazing.

Everyone has stories, good and bad; happy and sad. Everyone has a story to tell, and it's my job to tell them.

It's been a tough year to join the industry, with job cuts at media organisations not just nationwide but worldwide. It's an industry under pressure as it struggles to adapt to the new world, one where the internet - and free content - reigns supreme.

In some ways I consider myself lucky to have started out when I did - I have been told it can't get any worse than this past year has been.

But I don't think it has been so bad.

Yes, money is tight, I have been stressed and there never seem to be enough staff to carry the load, but every single day has been different, and you take the good with the bad.

I have seen people at their best and their worst and have gained knowledge in fields I didn't know existed - even wine has become more than just buying a bottle.

I appreciate what I have after seeing what so many don't, and I know I'm lucky to have a place in an industry which is changing fast.

I hope to be a part of that change and to keep journalism alive, because I think people rely on it more than they realise.

Let's face it: who else is going to ask the hard questions without us "strong and glamorous" journos?

BEST JOB/WORST JOB

Every year, CareerCast.com ranks 200 jobs from best to worst, using five criteria: physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook.

The US jobs website uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other US government agencies.

In 2013, actuary took pride of place at the top of the list. At the mid-way point, at No 100, was aerospace engineer. And at the bottom of the heap, at No 200, was newspaper reporter.

CareerCast.com publisher Tony Lee told The Wall Street Journal that newspaper reporter had ranked low for a while (in 2012 it was ranked 196 out of 200).

"What probably pushed it to the bottom is that several things got worse – job prospects decreased, the average salary continued to fall, and work hours continued to rise. Those factors also make the job more stressful," he said.

But not all agree it's the worst job around. Sure money is tight, hours are long, but the satisfaction of getting out there and meeting the many and varied members of our community is something that can't be measured. 

- The Marlborough Express

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