Thoroughness and Fact Checking

Facts are a journalist’s stock in trade. Getting them right is key to your credibility. So what happens when you make a mistake?

Facts are a journalist’s stock in trade. Getting them right is key to your credibility. So what happens when you make a mistake?

Earlier this week I attended a product launch event. It was a spectacular launch held in a proper theatre, with the string section from an orchestra, celebrity host and currently popular artist doing a song. I was flown in for the event.

The whole thing took about two and a half hours. To get there, my day started at 5.00am with a drive to the airport, flight and cab to the event. By the time it was over, I headed back to the airport and sat in the lounge to quickly look at the new product. I only had about 20 minutes but I noticed something that hadn’t been mentioned at the launch.

In my rush, what I had thought was something previously unmentioned was actually a mistake on my part. However, as it was unexpected, I called the vendor’s local representatives and asked if this was a feature of the device. They did some quick checking and confirmed that this was an important new feature.

So I made an error and the “fact” was confirmed as “correct” by a trustworthy source. I wrote the story and it was published online. I did note in my story that I hadn’t tested the feature.

These sorts of errors are likely to become more common. Not because journalists are less competent but because we live is a world of short news cycles, short attentions spans and limited resources for validating information.

I’m fortunate that most of the work I do is not news-related. So I usually have time to thoroughly test and check my work before submitting it to my editor. But with news, it’s often a race and that sort of time isn’t available. Coupled with my need to get on a plane, I rushed, made a mistake, got some bad information and ended up publishing with an error.

Credibility is critical for a successful freelancer. And getting the facts right is a core competency for a journalist. Next time, I’ll be more thorough and won’t push something out until I’m 100% certain.

How are you going to improve in 2012?

It’s a new year. That’s a good time to look back and look forward to learn from the past and improve your performance.

This year will be my second in full-time self employment. Last year involved a huge amount of learning as I got the hang of working by myself for myself most of the time. I managed to get and keep a regular contract client but I still needed to keep finding other clients and ensuring that I make the most of my available time. I spent some of the quiet time over Christmas and New Years thinking abut 2011 and what I could do to build on the success.

It’s easy to look back and only think about all the things I didn’t do well. However, I think that it’s easy to look at the negatives and create a list of things to do and improve upon that’s too long to do and that distracts you from your main business. this year, I’m going to focus on two things and two things only.

Organizational skills

Managing my time remains my biggest challenge. While there’s an emphasis on the “free” in freelance I need to work harder at creating and maintaining good work habits. That means making better use of my time.

I have a whiteboard on the wall in my office that I use for jotting down notes and reminders. This year, I’m going to draw a five day plan on the board and divide each day into three slots and allocate a specific activity to each slot.

The idea isn’t to totally regiment all my time but to provide some structure. One of my weaknesses is that I can be easily distracted. By creating a regular schedule I can make sure that I make the most of my office time.

Improving my Craft

My main task is writing. I believe (and am told) that I write well but that’s not an excuse to rest on my laurels.

In order to improve my writing I need to do two things more than I have been recently. I need to spend more time reading and more time writing. This ties in nicely with my time management objective as I’ll be setting aside part of my week to write in different styles.

Like all journalists, I’m a slightly frustrated novelist so I’ll put some focus on writing fiction. I don’t know if I’m any good at it but I have some good critics at home and I’m sure they’ll provide honest feedback. My plan is to put at least one three hour block aside each week to write some fiction.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading more than I have in some time. I’ll continue that, endeavoring to read outside my comfort zone. That’s always being a challenge for me as I know what I like.

So, what are you going to do to makem2012 evenbetter than 2011?

Business travel to New Zealand – tips

Looking for a way to do business travel in New Zealand on the cheap? Here’s what I learned on a recent trip.

One of the challenges for freelancers is balancing the cost/benefit equation when it comes to travel. Sometimes, you just have to go where the story is (like my friend Alison). I was in that position recently. In my new role as Chief Editor of SearchCIO I decided that the best place to research disaster recovery and business continuity planning was New Zealand following the recent earthquakes in Christchurch.

I’ll be writing an extended feature on that soon but, for this post, I wanted to share my experiences of travelling to New Zealand.

Flights

Travel between the east coast of Australia and New Zealand are quite cheap. I shopped around and booked a return trip for about $360AU. My outbound flight from Melbourne was on PacificBlue (part of the Virgin Australia group). For the return I booked with Jetstar (the budget arm of QANTAS).

My outbound flight was delayed by two hours due to fog in Auckland. I know that’s unavoidable but I didn’t receive any notification even though I’m signed up to receive SMS warnings of schedule changes. Worse still, when I checked the Virgin website 90 minutes after the scheduled departure, it still said the plane was scheduled to depart on time.

For my inconvenience, the airline gave me a $6 meal voucher that I chose to use on the flight.

On the way back, I flew on budget carrier Jetstar. I was at Auckland airport a little earlier than expected as my last interview finished early but didn’t leave me quite enough time to squeeze anything else into the day. I checked in as soon as they opened the counter and was offered a seat in the emergency exit row.

Leg room in that seat was very generous – it felt at least as roomy as a business class seat on a full-service carrier. Also, it’s the last row that’s filled typically so there were only two passengers with three seats of space making the return flight as comfortable as I could expect in economy class.

Take off was about 20 minutes late – there was no explanation given at the gate. Arrival was about 15 minutes later than scheduled – so a few minutes were made up in the air – but we were then left on the tarmac for about 30 minutes due to a technical problem with the air-bridge. All told, I was off the plane and 50 minutes later than I hoped.

Although I was based in Auckland I did have one other trip – to Christchurch. This was funded by NZICT who organised a series of meetings and interviews for me. The flight was with local carrier Air New Zealand. The flight was on time and the service was fine. The one thing that stood out was the safety demonstration.

Most carriers have a very serious video to accompany the flight attendant demonstration of seatbelts, life jackets and evacuation procedures. Air New Zealand’s morning demonstration was accompanied by a quite humorous presentation by 1980s fitness guru Richard Simmons. For the return, the video was done by a number of famous rugby personalities.

Accommodation

As I was travelling on a budget I was looking for an inexpensive hotel in a central location (aren’t we all!). Each year, my family buys the Entertainment Book. It’s filled with discount vouchers for hundreds of restaurants and other places. However, it is also linked with a discount accommodation booking service.

I stayed for three nights at a place called Bianco off Queen. It’s not a hotel but a serviced apartment complex. Although the room was small, it had a nice bathroom (that was recently updated by the look of it), a kitchenette, washing machine and, of course, a bed. For a business traveller looking to keep costs down, it worked well.

There were some issues with the room layout. The small table, wired internet connection and power points were nowhere near each other. I took the liberty of rearranging things a little so that the table was closer to power. The wired internet connection was of no se to me as neither my iPad or MacBook Air have ethernet ports but it could be annoying for others.

The in-room Internet charges were not dissimilar to other hotels I’ve been to with a charge of $30NZD per day with a 750MB limit.

Internet Access

When I arrived at Auckland airport I went straight to the Vodafone shop at the exit from customs.

I bought a 3G USB modem for $79NZD that is pre-activated with 2GB of traffic. There’s no need to provide any ID. I just paid, plugged and played.

I managed to find some free WiFi in some buildings but it’s nowhere near ubiquitous.

Taxis

For much of my stay, the weather was terrible. My plan was to walk between meetings where the Google Maps estimated journey was short enough to make it between meetings. However, the heavy rain had me catching a few more cabs than planned.

Cab fares in New Zealand vary significantly between companies – there are no set tariffs. For example, my first cab from the airport to the hotel cost about $75NZD. Another company, I discovered later, does the same trip for $35NZD. However, the cheaper fare requires a booking with a specific company that is only allowed to pick up passengers that have made a booking.

The system is not very user friendly for tourists or occasional visitors.

Summary

As I was fully-self funded I was looking for the best value (OK… cheapest) trip I could manage without compromising comfort and convenience. I think I achieved that although I suspect that next time I’ll hire a car rather than catch taxis and look for a slightly quieter hotel.

Junkets, Gifts and Ethics

Establishing and documenting your code of ethics is important for protecting your professional reputation.

The topic of freebies has been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. It’s tempting, particularly when starting out as a journalist, to see the offers of travel and the occasional gift as part of the benefit of the job. But it’s important to realise that one of the most important assets you have is reputation. And establishing and documenting your code of ethics is important for protecting that reputation.

I was reading this story about car makers modifying review cars provided to journalists and the following quote stood out to me.

A good review is worth a lot. Some marketers value a page of mainly positive editorial as worth 2½ to three times as much as a page of advertising.
That helps explain why companies fly journalists around and do their best to wrap them in cotton wool. (Some journalists think it’s because they are important and/or respected. Sad, sad souls.)

In case you missed it there are two key things

  1. Good editorial is more valuable than advertising
  2. Vendors and public relations people treat journalists well, at least partly, because happy writers may be more likely to write favourable copy

That means journalists need to keep their eye on what’s actually going on.

Last year, I was flown to Japan by a printer manufacturer to visit an R&D facility and meet with senior management. The value of that trip, for me, wasn’t the frequent flyer miles. The value came from the contacts I made and the increased product knowledge. Sure, some of that information could have been imparted by sending me a bunch of documentation. But the opportunity to speak with the people involved in the product development directly could never have been translated to paper.

As a freelance journalist, if you make the decision to accept a trip, then you need to make it clear to readers that when you write about the trip that you flew courtesy of the subject.

With gifts – it’s tougher. It would be easy to say “no gifts” but the reality is that something like a pen, cap or t-shirt isn’t likely to influence a writer. So where do you draw the line?

Fellow writer Renai LeMay is the editor of Delimiter. He recently declined the offer of a free tablet computer or smartphone at a product launch. Journalists in attendance (I wasn’t at the event) were offered a choice between the devices. He has a policy for his company of accepting gifts with a value in excess of $200.

Whether you agree with LeMay’s policy, what’s important to note is that LeMay has at least thought about it and has a policy.

I’d probably go a little further. I’d suggest that journalists should all

  1. Set a limit for the value of gifts
  2. Keep a register of gifts received
  3. Declare all gifts and sponsored travel

What do you do about gifts and trips? Do you have a policy? Let us know in the comments.

My Elevator Pitch – Extended Version

What do I do? It’s a question I’m often asked and had a chance to recently answer

Most business advice guides suggest that you need an “elevator pitch”. This is a short statement that descsribes your job, your business or whatever you are known for in just a couple of minutes. In the online world, this can be the sort of brief description that appears on an “About Me” page or widget but it’s named for the sort of description you can deliver to somene during an elevator ride. It’s short and direct.

Last night I had the privelege of talking about my work as a freelance journalist to students from my daughter’s school as part of their annual career’s fair. I thought I’d share my notes with you so you can get an idea of how I describe my work. It’s a bit longer than an elevator pitch but I was asked to address some specific questions.

What your job involves, what a typical day might be like

  • A typical work day starts at about 9.00 AM. I work from home and have a dedicated home office with all the stuff I need. It’s not part of the house so I can separate work from home (important if you’re self-employed)
  • I have a workflow system so I can track work that I have coming up so that I can prioritise what’s coming up. At any one time I may have up to 20 tasks in the queue. 
  • Depending on the day I might spend the day writing, interviewing people either on phone or in person or putting some time into boring stuff like office admin (accounts, etc)
  • I usually finish working between 5 and 6 but take time out to pick up kids from school or meet with friends to break things up

 Your journey into your career (some take interesting and unusual paths)

  • I got my job sort of by accident – it was never planned
  • A friend was freelancing for APC and was too busy to hit a deadline so I subbed in (I’d been doing some work for free on a couple of websites to build a reputation)
  • Then I started to pitch my own work
  • Made contact with other freelancers and expanded my network 
  • Some of my friends in the business came to the job through traditional university/cadetship paths. That works well and equips you with the skills you need. I had to learn on the job.
  • For the first few years I had a full-time job and freelanced on the side

 What you like about your job, what attracted you to into the area

  • I meet interesting people
  • I write about stuff I’m interested in
  • Because I write about technology I get lots of cool toys to play with
  • I have a lot of freedom
  • I get to travel

 What the challenges are

  • Cash-flow: you don’t always know where your next job is coming from
  • Prioritizing and time management: when you’re on your own schedule you need a lot of self discipline (and that takes time and practice)
  • Loneliness; although that might depend on your personality type
  • In some niches, pay rates are falling (the global economy is a huge factor) 

The types of skills/personal attributes you think are important for you to be effective in your role

  • You have to like writing. There’s no point doing a job where you’re not going to enjoy the main activity
  • Motivation and self-confidence: if you can’t sell yourself you’ll starve
  • Organization so that you don’t miss tasks or deadline
  • As a freelancer, if you can’t solve your editor’s problem then you’re not doing your job

Any advice you would give to someone considering this career

  • It’s not for everyone.
  • It can take a while to establish your reputation 
  • Listen to all that stuff your english teacher tells you about grammar, construction, spelling and language
  • Read a lot so you expand your vocabulary

 Career opportunities available

  •  Lots but go in your eyes open