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Why specialists are so special

3 November 2015

First week into his new job as the Express's royal correspondent and Richard Palmer found himself being carpeted by Prince Charles's press secretary.

The story he was fuming about was one which labelled the heir to the throne "the most pampered man in Britain" after a visit to a farm where the farmer had put out a 30-metre red carpet across his field.  "Fair enough," said Richard. "It wasn't his fault the farmer put out the carpet."

Relations resumed, Richard didn't find himself banished to the Tower of London and now, 13 years later, he is one of the longest-reigning royal reporters with a huge following on Twitter.

Being a specialist reporter is all about cultivating your contacts – but trying not to go native. It is about being on top of the subject and recognising the trends. It can also be about making yourself the go-to person on your subject.

These were some of the messages from a panel of specialist journalists at an event at the National Union of Journalists' headquarters in London.

Chairing that evening was Barrie Clement, latterly the industrial correspondent of the Independent. He started with a gloomy message. Specialist journalist posts are on the decline.The Financial Times used to have five industrial correspondents and most other papers had at least two.Today there is only one industrial correspondent, the Press Association's Alan Jones.

"We are now witnessing the egregious trade union bill, which will effectively remove the rights of six million-plus trade unionists, but there is no one to explain what is going on," he said.

There is a huge role for the specialist today, according to Emily Beament, Press Association's environment correspondent. "There is such a morass of information and the specialist is the person who can sort out what is important and can give context to this information, putting together analyses to combat the propaganda and competing lobbying groups."

Emily is a leading writer on fracking and the first in the UK to write about ash dieback disease. Today, most of her stories are about energy – the specialist always needs to be on trend, but at times also needs to shape their subject’s news agenda.

Emily has always had an interest in the environment and, playing the long game, she worked towards being a specialist correspondent. She has since carved out a secondary specialism by reporting on heritage stories. She said a specialist journalist had to earn respect by reporting accurately and with authority – that is the way to raise your professional profile and win the contacts to give you stories.

Dominic Casciani works as a home affairs correspondent for the BBC on TV, radio and online. He covers immigration, law, policing, terrorism and security. In 2012 he won a landmark court battle with the government to film the story of a terrorism suspect held for eight years without trial. He has made himself an ultra-specialist on terrorism.

He believes social media has allowed specialists to create themselves as a brand – to build up a following and reputation as the go-to person and become indispensable to their employers. It’s a job that requires patience. There have been stories he has worked on that took eight years to come to fruition.

"Special advisers hate us, because they know their spin won't work with us – we know too much to be taken in,” he said. “That is why you need to devote your time to the details, so you are the expert, the person who can explain what it all means."

Ann Mroz, the editor and digital publishing director of the Time Educational Supplement (TES), had a slightly different perspective. "You need to protect your content,” she warned. “If you have something that is special, then don't give it away."

The award-winning TES is profitable and, unlike many B2B publications, remains in print as well as online. Ann said: "You need to show enough to reel people in, so they pay for the full service."  Her other piece of advice is to create niches within niche subjects. As editor of the Times Higher, she ran stories about the research assessment exercise, now research excellence framework, rankings used to allocate funding. The national press didn't cover the subject, but academics were obsessed by it.

The panel all agreed that a specialist writer should get a grounding as a general reporter, learning the disciplines of the trade. Once they progress, they can enjoy the advantages of setting the agenda and not being at the beck and call of the newsdesk.

Richard Palmer said:

"It can lead to a better work-life balance in that you have more say in what you do and there will be set diary events in your field, so you can plan better, rather than always having to carry an overnight bag in case you are asked to cover a breaking story."

James Brookes, a journalism student at University of Westminster, said the event had given him a great insight into the role of a specialist writer:

"It was an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable event, giving a useful insight into an area of modern journalism which is under threat and facing increasingly pressure.The NUJ’s platform to chat informally with tenured professionals about their own experiences is an invaluable tool for any student beginning a career in journalism."

Specialist journalists shouldn't become an endangered species by Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary

Tags: , national newspapers, specialist writers, broadcasting, times educational supplement, express, press association, BBC