Wannabe Hacks

explores the extraordinary movement sweeping the journalist scene; the hacks are a new breed of legitimate reporters

In the crush of one of the most competitive graduate markets five young entrepreneurs are steadily making a name for themselves.

Wannabe Hacks is the brain child of Ben Whitelaw, Nick Petrie and Tom Clarke, all formerly of Birmingham student newspaper Redbrick, a website entirely devoted to the intricacies of trying to break into student journalism. Started under a year ago the site now boasts an impressive online presence and a dedicated Twitter following. It is clear why.

With clarity and energy the five “Wannabes” are forging the identity of the modern student journalist in the heat of the myriad of new tools and technologies available to the everyday hack.

“Wannabe Hacks was born out of a frustration with what was on the web in terms of journalism advice” says Whitelaw, whose online alias ‘The Student’ is rendered in a slick Mad Men-esque silhouette online, just as are those of his colleagues. “Everything was written by people who were already journalists and who had got a job in the media at a time when things were very different. With the five of us planning on pursuing a range of routes (interning, freelancing, newspaper MA, investigative MA) in London, we thought a collaborative blog would be an interesting way to track our progress into journalism.”

No-one has a god-given right to go straight in as a trainee reporter or an editorial assistant, those days are long gone

What a journey it has been. Through work experience placements, being interviewed live on BBC Radio 5 about entrepreneurship and speaking at media conferences, the Hacks have chronicled just how far a good idea can get you with enthusiasm and humour.

They may not have known what they had on their hands when they started but others saw it’s potential immediately and, as Whitelaw describes, on a shoestring budget they’ve created an authentic and recognisable identity: “When seeking advice, we were told by Martin Belham, Lead User Experience and Information Architect at the Guardian, to ‘Get started. Tomorrow’. So we did – with a WordPress site and then after a few months with a neat personalised theme coded by Cameron Drysdale, a student web designer and coder. We’ve spent £30 on hosting and about the same on a few business cards.”

This fierce ambition and independence typifies much good student journalism today. There is a wealth of opportunity to get your name and work out there in a constructive manner and it is this quality in the modern information market that Wannabe Hacks has tapped into with such razor sharp acumen. Not that they want to stop there though, as Tom Clarke, former Redbrick Sports and News editor and ‘The Chancer,’ details: “I know it has potential but like Ben I think we are miles away from what we want to be and, more importantly, what we should be. We need more distinctive content and a better site but just the interest we have had and the acknowledgement from others shows the potential. But that’s all it is at the minute: potential.”

Ben Whitelaw; or, 'The Student', and one of the five Wannabe Hacks

This perhaps underestimates the stir that they’ve already caused; at least in their field. Wannabe Hacks is a site utilised to the fullest by an engaged and passionate audience; the numbers may be still growing but those in the know care and enjoy the site.

When people are bombarded by information and content from a plethora of sources how do you keep them coming back? “At the heart of Wannabe Hacks is the fact that it doesn’t preach. It’s for wannabes and it’s by wannabes.” says freelance journalist Matt Caines.

“Well we’re a little fed up of older journos out of touch with social and new media telling us how to get a job in an industry they knew 20 to 30 years ago. Instead, we wanted to be our own experimental guinea pigs and let others in on it. If I had a good pitch accepted, here’s how and why; if I cocked it up and it was for this or that reason. I can tell the readers what went wrong and hopefully they won’t follow suit. At the same time we want others to come in and advise each other – Hacks is a forum and community space for aspiring journalists to share their own experiences.”

Now though the project has taken on a life of it’s own and become a part of the world of journalism. It’s writers are not simply kids with their noses pressed against the sweet shop window, they are journalists in their own right.

As the site has morphed from the beginnings of a set of career journeys to a source of content about the processes of journalism in itself, with a still weighty slant towards helping out aspiring hacks, it has really come into it’s own. Voted the number two blog in Fleet Street Blues top ten list of Journalism sites for 2010, alongside writers like Roy Greenslade and John Slattery, the Hacks are not the anarchic urchins storming the well defended battlements of paid writing; they are getting a bit of respect from their peers: “At the moment the influence it’s having is huge – it was directly responsible for me getting a job at the Guardian and it has played a fundamental part of the experience that has helped me get a move to the Telegraph” says Nick Petrie, former Redbrick editor.

Wannabe Hacks and friends at a recent event

Despite this there is a patent sense that this is a happy by product of the venture rather than the intended outcome: “We never set up Hacks to get a job per se, the hours we’ve spent on it have been for the sake of it” says Whitelaw “I think it just goes to show the power that a self-starter project like Wannabe Hacks can have, especially with the rise of online journalism. I have no formal training in the area that I’m going into and yet because I’ve worked hard in my spare time as part of a site that is based on a decent idea, I’ve got a full-time position from it.”

The idea that a similar fate awaits every student who is tempted by the allure of Fleet Street is not a myth that the Hacks like to perpetuate though. Numerous blog posts have been about dealing with the inevitable rejections of journalism (both Whitelaw and Clarke have written about not getting on to graduate schemes) and the site is focused on providing people with the edge to get ahead in what can sometimes be a cut throat industry. They are pragmatic about the difficulties that people leaving University, as they were not too long ago, face. “It being difficult isn’t going to change.” says Alice Vincent, whose dedicated work for student papers and then on magazine placements landed her her current position. “If you want to get into journalism, you’ve got to be prepared to give your all to it, but that shouldn’t really be an issue because if you’re going to make it then that’s all you’ll want to do anyway. The current industry demands a creative approach, even more persistence than usual and giving people a reason to take notice of you.”

This seems to be the over-riding ethos of Wannabe Hacks. Providing yourself with a fresh angle on well trodden career path, giving CV weary employers something to get excited about – and not in a showy, preening way but in the manner of someone hungry for a chance to do something they love. “Once you’re finished, don’t expect to walk into a job” is Ben Whitelaw’s take on things “No-one has a god-given right to go straight in as a trainee reporter or an editorial assistant, those days are long gone. Go out of your way to do something different and innovative – with the amount of people you’ll be competing with for jobs and even work experience, you’ll need to stand out.” Solid advice it would seem, that typifies the verve with which he and his colleagues are attacking a difficult challenge. Their advice is being consumed by a grateful, willing audience and it’s helping them achieve their personal goals at the same time. Perhaps Nick Petrie’s advice on how to become a journalist crystallises their reams of writing and tips into one commonly held value: “Have no fear.”

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