Erasmus student Fintan Walsh on his Journalism Internship with the Limerick Leader

Limerick Leader Dru#3834391 (2)Lecturer Eddy Borges-Rey once said to us in a class, what primarily drives us journalistically is entertainment (music, film, art, fashion, etc) and sport. I agreed with him, as I was once one of those student journalists, who did nothing but contribute to online music publications. It sounded very ideal to be a professional music journalist, right up until I looked into Robert Christgau’s career. He was a fiction writer, a sports journalist and crime reporter before he became one of the world’s greatest music critics and essayists. At that point, I knew I had to branch out, but not forcibly.

In June 2013, I took on an internship in The Limerick Leader, one of Ireland’s most acclaimed newspapers – locally and nationally. On my first day, the only useful journalistic traits I had were knowing Gregg’s Shorthand at 60 to 70 words per minute and being able to meet deadlines. But that didn’t mean I was going to be a great journalist, or one of them. The editor, Alan English – brother of renowned Scottish sports journalist Tom English – said you will only go as far as hard-working and as ambitious as you are.

When you join a newspaper, it takes a while to blend into the system. By observing other reporters and their stories, you start to critically analyse everything, which then allows you to think of your own news stories. It took me three months to realise this, but I was not too late.

In September 2013, I wanted to do a feature on the drink and drug culture surrounding Limerick’s youth. I did nine anonymous case studies on people who have had first-hand experience with illegal drugs and on underage drinkers.  Surprisingly, these sources were not difficult to find. They were aged between 17 and 23.

I made it a priority to meet with these people outside office hours, as I didn’t want to make this investigation an excuse for not doing some work, only until it came to laying the story out.

In order to allay the worries of some sources, I met with them in a nearby café. That way, they had my word that I was going to keep their identities completely invisible to the public.

One of my more interesting sources was a drug dealer who had been in the black market for more than 10 years. Through tireless networking and a handful of rejections from other dealers, this person was eager to know more about my project. We met up in a local hotel and ordered coffees. I was glad he didn’t order a pint, otherwise he would have been answering questions under the influence. We broke the ice after a while, and I told him that I was going to use shorthand. He was discussing the time he was arrested for intent of sale and supply, where police raided his apartment. He had yet to appear in court for this. While recording someone with a Dictaphone means you have no inaccuracy problems, it also becomes a potential danger if the recording somehow ends up in the wrong hands. No one – but you – will understand your shorthand. A recording can last forever online. Your notes can be dumped when you’re done with them.

In addition, I met with Limerick’s chief of police, a juvenile liaison officer and a local counsellor for youth’s suffering from drug and alcohol misuse. The counsellor was reluctant at the start because he did not want to raise any “moral panic” in relation to Limerick’s youth. With an article like this, it’s very easy to do so, but I assured him that it was a feature to help dissuade the culture, and not to discriminate against it.

You can’t get into something like this with a predetermined result. If that’s the case, it no longer becomes an investigation.

My question was: is Limerick’s youth badly impacted by drugs and alcohol? My conclusion was: yes, it has an impact on local social life, but there is a strong sense of restorative justice in the city, which is preventing youths from getting sucked into a lifestyle of drug misuse.

I was truly passionate about this project. And it made me realise that journalism is for me. I discovered that this wasn’t just my project, it was the project of every source I interviewed. Without people, you do not have a story. From a 3,000-word pitch, it turned into a three-page exclusive on December 21, 2013. And from this three-pager, I received the National Press Journalist of the Year award at the Student National Media Awards, in Dublin.

This is a prestigious award I never thought I would win, seeing I was up against Masters students, national news journalists and the likes. This award shows the power of local journalism.

Journalistically, I have more options now and I want to branch out even more, while holding onto my passions, such as music, film and art.

Creative ideas spark creative journalism, I believe. For people who are not big into current affairs, it’s easy to get attached to it. I sometimes will open up a newspaper and find a hard news story that I have literally no interest in. I would then brainstorm news features around that topic and try to find an alternative angle.

When you publish a great news story, it’s incredibly rewarding. Once you read it, you want to write another one. Though I do wonder if I will get a job when I finish my studies in 2015, I don’t think there will be disappointment for any trainee journalist who puts passion into their work. And by the looks of it, there’s a lot of passionate students in my university and there’s certainly a lot in Stirling.

If anyone would like to see my three-page news feature, you can e-mail me at fintan2005@hotmail.com and I’ll be happy to send on a PDF.

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