Sited – Wannabe Hacks

11 April 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Image: Wannabe Hacks

Wannabe Hacks seems to be a lot of things. It started out as an idea we would do “until a better one came along”,’ says Nick Petrie, who also goes by the name of The Intern. Petrie is one of a posse of five young journalists that have joined forces to forge their individual and collective careers. They don’t have an office but have regular sessions with their laptops at the pub or in cafes.

Lawrie Zion has been exchanging emails with Nick Petrie for this week’s ‘Sited’ column to discuss this unusual collaboration that has been attracting attention since the group first met at London’s City University.

Whose idea was it, and what was the original mission?

The idea originally (in its basic form) came from Tom Clarke who is also known as The Chancer. It was then pounced upon and expanded and develop by us as a group. The current mission is still the same as it was when we started back in August, to take people along our journey with us to prove that you can still make it in journalism. Back then it was impossible to foresee the appetite for our content and the potential to engage other wannabe hacks. At its essence it is a very personal project charting five people’s individual failures and successes as they try and make it in the world of journalism, but mixed in with that is good advice, a few laughs here and there and a community space to throw around ideas.

Your backgrounds are very diverse — did you all know each other?

The original five hacks (The Student, Ben Whitelaw; The Intern, Nick Petrie; The Freelancer, Matt Caines; The Chancer, Tom Clarke; and The Detective, Ned Murray) were all on the student paper Redbrick together at the University of Birmingham. The Maverick, Alice Vincent was added after Ned had to retire from the project and has slotted into the world of Hacks seemlessly.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that 20 years ago you would have been a rock band. Are there any similarities?

Well, maybe the late nights, but our rider would be pathetic in comparison, – a good Moleskine notebook, a smartphone and an unlimited bar tab..

How has it helped you to develop your profiles as journalists?

Wannabe Hacks has forced us to be very self-critical, which can be hard at times — but is also one of the most beneficial processes you can undertake when trying to break into an industry as competitive as journalism. Laying yourself bare on the internet often makes people think they can say what they like to you, so it has certainly helped us develop that thick skin that every journo needs. It also demonstrates our willingness and indeed, our keenness to engage with the industry we wish to enter.

Who is your audience and what do they say to you?

Our audience seems to be graduate age journalists in the majority, but we have occupied a space where a wide range of people seem to engage with what we have to say, from established hacks and lecturers to our ‘target’ audience of serious wannabes. What they say to us is generally along the lines of ‘it’s so good to know there are others going through the same problems/feelings/stress that I am’. Talking about rejection can be tough, but when you know others are failing it makes it easier to examine yourself and improve.

I like the way you speak so openly about your own experiences – the ‘What I’m Bad At’ piece seems refreshingly different from the more instructional tone of so much advice to journalists. Has writing about such experiences changed your views on the practice of journalism?

This was part of Tom’s original concept – the idea that we’re not better than anyone else, we are not on a pedestal talking down to other potential journalists. We just happen to be talking openly about our experiences. You can leave yourself quite open sometimes, but we tend to feel that it is that stark honesty and openness which appeals to our audience. I don’t think writing in the manner we have has changed our views on the industry, but our heavy level of engagement with the industry means that we question it on both a practical level in terms of how best to conduct our ‘journalism’ and on an academic level in terms of the massive change that journalism has been undertaking for the better part of a decade now.  

What’s been the biggest achievement of this project so far?

Wow, that is quite a question. On one level I think it would be still existing after nine months, to still see a demand, in fact a growth in demand for our content. To have kept the machined oiled and producing challenging content week in week out while we all work, attend uni and chase our dream job is somewhat of an achievement in itself. We were very pleased with the turn out to our first physical meet up (80 people out of 113 sign-ups joined us in the pub one Friday in January, including lecturers from London’s journo courses) — we hope to improve on that attendance with our next meet up. It got The Intern a job interview for his current position at The Guardian and has started some interesting conversations with different people about where we might be headed.

What does the future look like for Wannabe Hacks? Will the line up change, or are you going to be like U2?

Less like U2 and more like the Sugarbabes we reckon. We think there will almost always be a demand for our type of content. Getting into the industry next year will be different to this year and so on. That means there is space to keep swapping in new Hacks as the current ones progress and becomes less ‘wannabe’ more ‘Hack’ – although we think we are a year or two from that point. There are some interesting discussions taking place between us and a variety of people that we can’t elaborate on at the moment — but we do have some big ideas for Hacks that we would love to realise in the near future.

Find out more about Wannabe Hacks at www.wannabehacks.co.uk. You can also follow them on Twitter @wannabehacks and on Facebook.

Lawrie Zion is co-founder of upstart and a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University’s Journalism program. Previous Sited columns can be found here.