How To Thrive As A Journalist, Without Prior Experience

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Once in a while we will post an interview with someone about their tools, workflows, and mental frameworks that they use to produce their creative work. By looking at what tools someone uses and how they use them can give us an idea into how we can create better.

Azzam is an avid skateboarder, filmmaker, and now he works as a journalist for Malaysian Digest. I found him particularly interesting because all of the major things that he does require a constant output of creativity. 

Read on more to find out how he juggles many roles, keep churning out a consistent level of work in many different media, and do a job he did not train for.

This article was edited for clarity.

 


 

Can you introduce yourself to the readers first?

Hai! My name is Azzam Syafiq, currently I’m working full time as a journalist with Malaysian Digest, an online news website. My choice of career comes at quite as a shock to my family and friends (and maybe you!), as I took Mechanical Engineering degree for four years back in Taylor’s University. Fortunately my family is supportive of my career decision, and I love my job so far.

While I really wanted to work in journalism, I wish to focus more on broadcast journalism. I treat my experience in MD as taking a mass communications degree – to improve my writing and journalism skills, as well as making valuable contacts along the way.

Tools

What does your work setup (where you do most of your creative work) look like?

My writing setup just consists of my laptop, an Honor 6X phone to interview related people and a Zoom H1 microphone to record my conversations. When it comes to writing for journalism work, I mostly do it at my office in Hartamas. I type in Microsoft Word, sometimes Notepad. As for using phone on-the-go, I only use it whenever I cover breaking news on-site. For example, during the Kim Jong Nam case, I was sent to the North Korean embassy, and I had to write updates instantly to the office. Fortunately I had my iPad, so I had a huge keyboard to work with.

As for filmmaking, I just use my Sony RX100 Mark III, a tripod, and the Zoom H1 attached to a lavalier microphone to capture better audio (microphones in cameras are not good enough). Since my job currently does not require video-making, I do my editing at my house. My setup is pretty much a wannabe Youtuber (LOL). I make use of natural lighting available.

What tools, programs, equipment do you use for your writing job?  If you had access to near-unlimited funds, how would your work setup look like and consist of?

If I have near unlimited resource, I’d get a mirrorless camera, such as the Sony A7, as it has the same features with a DSLR (interchangeable lenses) but with a smaller body size and weight. And also a microphone mounted on the camera (see Casey Neistat). I don’t intend to buy larger cameras as journalists need to work on the fly. You see something, just whip out a camera and hit record. The journalists I follow Tim Pool and Zan Azlee) mostly uses GoPros and prosumer DSLRs rather than large professional setups. Also, probably will leave KL. I think I’ve stayed long enough in the city.

Workflow

How do you organize your tasks? From writing, to interviewing, to film making, and daily life?

When I’m writing an article, I search the internet for related people, called stakeholders. For example, right now, I’m writing about exotic pets so I search for people from Perhilitan, a vet and also some enthusiasts. Then I contact them to see if I can have a phone interview with them.

Once I’ve set an interview appointment, I come up with a few questions to ask, discuss with my editor and call the stakeholders. Sometimes they prefer to talk face-to-face, so I need to meet them. Same goes for filming interviews, but in that case I always need to meet them, instead of just phone interview.

But for my last film Bukan Sydney Yang Aku Kenal I just go to random people and ask if they are OK to be interviewed. As for meeting the schedule, I have weekly deadlines for the article, so as long as I finish my work before the deadlines, then I’m good. I’ve never had any deadlines for my filmmaking works.

How do you keep coming up with new ideas for your column on Malaysian Digest?

I try to write something related to current issues. For example, on 24 April we had the coronation of Sultan Kelantan as the latest Yang diPertuan Agong, so I interviewed famous Kelantan people on what they think of their sultan.

Can you briefly tell us what goes into the making of an article, from idea to hitting “publish”?

When I have decided on the topic with my editors, first I would search for any relevant articles on the internet, find out if someone has done a similar story. If someone already does that, then I can adjust my angle of my story to be unique. Then, I compiled the list of people I can contact (called stakeholders) as much as possible.

The numbers can come from official websites, calling them or contacting them on social media. I call as much as I can, as realistically not everyone will get back to me. I prefer to get 3 or more interviewees for my story. When I write, I like to write in chunks – I do a little bit every day

How do you tell a credible source from a not-so-credible source?

This is quite a sensitive topic. Some say the news by Utusan Malaysia are the real deal, others may not believe so. But in general, if lots of mainstream news cover a specific issue/story, then chances are it is accurate. MD is a small news company, so we rely on larger news outlets such as Astro Awani, Bernama, etc.

You studied something unrelated to what you’re doing now. What did you do in your life to prepare you for this job?

I did some video work in the past. I was a member of my university’ motorsports team, Taylor’s Racing Team, where I recorded my team’s experiences and compiled it into the video. I also recorded for some engineering fairs, and there was this one time I helped a friend to record his dancing classes. As for journalism video-documenting, my first short documentary Bukan Sydney Yang Aku Kenal was my first proper work. There was also this one time I went to a pro-Palestine rally in Kuala Lumpur and I recorded the protest, but unfortunately I lost the footage.

Any writers or people that you derive inspiration from?

Honestly, I don’t have any specific writers that I look up to. When it comes to writing the news, I don’t believe in sugarcoating, just tell it as it is. But then again, sugarcoating a.k.a. ‘the art of clickbaiting’ is what attracts people to click on your news website. So I’m taking my inspiration from all over the place, especially news. I do like Zan Azlee’s weekly columns for Asian Correspondent (you can read them at FatBidin.com)

Are you still big into film-making? We saw your travelogue, it was great. Can you tell us about how you made it?

I’m not sure if I’m ‘big’ on filmmaking, as I only do it as a hobby. When I did my Sydney video, originally the only thoughts when I arrived in the city was “Oh, I want to make a skateboard video, but instead of just skateboard tricks, I’ll film about the scene instead.” I already planned to just talk to random skaters and ask them if they were OK to be filmed.

I only arranged a meeting with one skater (Jade Ryan), the rest were I just befriend them on the spot. There’s no storyboard when I film. However, once I got back and the editing process started, I wrote a rough script on how I would present the story.

Once I’ve reviewed the clips, I recorded my narration according to my script and I edited it accordingly. The narration that made it into the final cut was only 50% of my whole original narration.

About You

What does creativity mean to you?

If you asked me this question when I was in school, I’d say oh, creativity means that person can do good drawing and good in art. But now I’d like to think differently, i think it’s just meaning being able to constantly create new stuff. I bet the guys and girls in the racing team can’t do any artsy stuff, but the way the team designed and created a racing car requires good creativity.

There’s always creativity in how comedians make spontaneous jokes, debaters constantly finding points to attack his/her opponents, etc. I think if you can constantly create new things, in anything, you are creative.

How does your passion for skateboarding influence the way you write and make films?

Skateboarding definitely has impacted my style of filming. I’m always attracted to rough and uncensored journalism, where words are never bleeped out and the recordings are unedited with color correction.

Skateboarding (when I first started) was in its own world, we did not have to obey to any set rules or regulations and just be whoever we want and skate how we want. As for me, I always abided by the law in everything that I do, but when it comes to skateboarding, I don’t care what other people think, I just go.

I guess this flows into my filming, where I don’t really care whether I’m obeying to a certain regulation, I just record what I feel like I want to. My favourite filmmakers has always been from VICE, and that’s where I got my filming inspiration. As for my favourite skate film, it is definitely Backstreet Atlas.

Would you consider becoming an independent publisher?

I do have plans on going independent. I think it is more liberating as we are not constrained by any political affiliations, however I realise the money will not be steady if I go indie. RIght now, I’m learning as much as I can in journalism, and once I feel like I am ready, I will got into freelancing. My favourite journalists, Zan Azlee, Chris Lau and Tim Pool are all freelancers, so you can say they are my idols.

Let’s say there’s someone also in Engineering school who wants to pursue journalism as well. Do you have any advice for that person? Anything you would do differently, would do better?

If possible, stick with engineering. When I discovered my passion for journalism when I was doing engineering, I did not decide to change course. Even though I don’t want to be an engineer, I feel like I can finish it, so I stick with it. Plus, I have already made good friends among my coursemates, so I don’t feel like it was too hard to finish the course as having friends made it easier. However, if you feel like engineering is not for you and you can’t do it, then maybe you should change.

What do people never ask you that you wish they did?

Why do girls never ask me to be their boyfriend?

 


 

You can get in touch with Azzam on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram

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