So you want to be a TV reporter or presenter? I get so many questions asking for advice on this subject and the next two articles come from two different people who have succeeded in their field by following two very different routes. If you are not already signed up to get these articles sent directly to you by email then do so now to avoid missing the next article.
For now I am really pleased to give ITV’s wonderful soap and showbiz reporter, Sharon Marshall, the floor. Sharon joined the UK’s long-running daytime series, ‘This Morning’, at a time when I was Editor and she was a real joy to work with. Sharon’s background in tabloid journalism is told in her highly entertaining book, ‘Tabloid Girl’. She’s worked on a number of major newspapers, including the former News of the World.
Sharon’s is not the only way to succeed on screen in TV but it provides a very valuable lesson to anyone interested in a similar job. If anyone asks me what he or she should study if they want to be on TV, my answer is generally journalism.
Over to Sharon:
How useful is journalism as a route to getting into TV?
Journalism is useful if you’re planning to become an “expert” in a sector like Showbiz. If you’re linked to a newspaper or magazine and attending showbiz events and meeting celebs as part of your course of work, it will make it easier to effectively do the same job on screen.
Tabloid hacks are under attack at the moment but look back at my ten years on the national press and know that’s the reason I got the This Morning job.
Being a journalist teaches you to work to deadline and fully research what you’re writing. You learn to read every paper every day, make contacts within your sector and know everything about that subject. In journalism it’s your name on the copy, you’re legally and morally responsible for what you write. So you’ve got to know your stuff.
If you apply the same rules to TV reporting you’ll survive.
At This Morning I write my own briefs for the presenters rather than rely on a researcher to brief me. We work completely live on the show, questions are not scripted, so, for my two eight minute slots a week, I like to say that Phil and Holly can throw whatever they like at me and I should know my subject and be able to answer it.
I do red carpet interviews a lot and am always dismayed to see young pretty things standing there with a microphone and a director holding up a board saying: ‘ask them where their dress is from?’ Or someone calling over a PR and asking who someone is on the red carpet. I don’t think you should be allowed to set foot on a red carpet unless you know who absolutely every celebrity is, what they are nominated/known for, and what questions you should ask them.
With something like the British Soap Awards or the National TV Awards you can get 100 people arriving at once, there’s no time to look at someone else for a briefing.
Journalism also teaches you to spot a story, so if someone says something of interest you can pick up on it. It also gives you a good legal background – always useful on a live show if someone says something naughty that can potentially get you all into trouble!
Do you need a degree in journalism to find work in this area?
I don’t have one and I’ve never been asked if I have. I did a basic training in journalism and radio techniques about 20 years ago – but find that by far the best thing is to learn on the job. I knocked on my local newspaper’s door when I was doing my GCSE’s, asked to see the news editor and asked if I could work there for free, just making coffees and writing wedding reports whilst I was at college. I found a wonderful journalist called Harold Heyes who took me under my wing, took pity on a keen 16-year-old and taught me the ropes. A bit of cheek goes far further than a degree in opening doors.
I got my first job on a national newspaper by delivering 20 crates of lager with my CV attached and calling the news editor from reception and telling him he had an urgent delivery waiting. When he came down I said he could have the beer if he gave me a shift! He laughed and said yes. Remember that execs are plagued by CVs landing every day – you’ve got to stand out. One person got work experience at This Morning by noting the names of the dayteam producers, tracking them down on twitter, then sending them a CV direct. Brilliant!
Bosses are looking for people with flair, people who will stand out in a crowd. So why just send a dull CV like everyone else does? Put some effort in!
How did you end up appearing on screen?
I had a soap column on the Sunday People about 15 years ago, which lead to a bit of radio and the odd talking head on TV. Producers move around a lot, so they tended to ask for me when they went to new stations because they knew I could provide soundbites and analysis on news stories. A PR was rung by the producers of an ITV2 show called SoapFever asking if they could think of a soap expert to do a few shows and I got picked for that.
As for This Morning – Shu would probably know that – not me! (Ed’s note: ‘cos Sharon has the fantastic combination of skills, talent and personality; she’s a reporter you can trust to deliver the story and an absolute pleasure to work with). I just got a call asking if I could come on the show and talk about soaps one day. I was lucky enough to have great contacts with the EastEnders, Emmerdale, Corrie and Hollyoaks offices, who I all rang for a piece of gossip I could take in. Happily they all gave me something good, and EastEnders even fixed for me to have a quick chat with Leslie Grantham ahead of his reappearance as Dirty Den. Fern asked at the end of the segment if I’d stay and I said yes and I’m still there!
How does life as a jobbing reporter on newspapers compare to life as a TV reporter?
Personally I find it much easier. People trust TV and particularly trust us at This Morning. If something’s been reported wrongly in the press or some columnist is having a bitch unfairly about someone, you can turn round, live on TV, and tell the truth. The bad thing is that if you miss the action and don’t get the camera pointing at it – you’ve missed the story. Plus if you mess up you can’t go back and write something clever afterwards. You just have to look like an idiot on TV.
Both careers are pretty unstable though and hard to get into. You need a tough skin for both. And expect to get paid peanuts at first. I used to do a three hour news review on radio for £30 a time. Radio interviews are often free. I lived in a hostel when I first came to London as newspaper shifts were so badly paid and they are still less than £100 a day for a shift.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to be a TV presenter or reporter?
Research, research, research. (Ed’s addition: “and Work, Work, Work!”)
What’s been your most memorable professional moment?
As a reporter probably having to go swinging undercover! (I started off as an undercover hack before moving to the bright lights of showbiz!) As a TV reporter it was interviewing Corrie’s Bill Tarmey for the first time – I was such a fan. And both have combined recently to lead to a job as an EastEnders scriptwriter. Seeing my first episode go out with my name on was an amazing, amazing feeling. My next airs on June 6th and I’ve just completed my fourth episode which goes out in summer.
‘Tabloid Girl’ is a comedy based on my experience as a tabloid journalist. It covers swinging parties, how to deal with angry prostitutes and how breaking into the set of Friends lead to me getting a staff job. If you want to be a showbiz reporter it will teach you everything you need to do on the job – plus how to claim it on expenses.
It was a life I don’t regret living – but I was extremely grateful to Shu Richmond for offering me an escape plan out of it and into TV*.
*Sharon actually made up her own good fortune. She worked damn hard to learn her craft and she worked out what she wanted to do; she made sure she could offer something to the production and offered up her skills. All I had to do was accept them and sort a contract to suit! At the time Sharon was on a relatively insecure ‘as-and-when’ contract, paid for her appearances as-and-when whenever called upon but with very few guarantees. This is quite common in the world of TV reporters and experts on a magazine format show. Obviously it didn’t give Sharon the security she needed. We would never have thought of employing her in a production role with on-screen duties if she hadn’t asked.
So Important Lesson of the Day – if you want to change your conditions at work, find a way to make it work for your employer and make the suggestion yourself. If you don’t ask, you can’t receive, right?!
Thank you, Sharon! You’re a star.
You really should buy Sharon’s book, Tabloid Girl, not only cos I get a mention in it but also ‘cos it is funny, true, provides a glimpse into how to get into reporting and an excellent guide to what may come your way should you choose journalism or TV as your career!
You can follow Sharon on Twitter @sharontweet
Any questions, please do leave them in the comment section below. Or add your experiences of working in journalism and TV. We’d love to her them.