“You’re in control!” – Virtual Classroom session with Ben Falk, author of ‘Entertainment Journalism’

Hi everybody! My name is Ben. I am the author of Entertainment Journalism – Making Your Career and the same journalist. So I want to say hello to everybody. Thank you so much for asking me such interesting questions. I’ll do my very best to go through everybody’s and answer as best I can.

Chelsea asked: How do you manage multiple deadlines?

Well, badly is the answer, Chelsea! I wish I was better at that, but that’s one of the problems I think about being a freelance journalist – often you’ll find that this work bleeds into each other and it’s really difficult to balance that. What I try and do is I write a list, so I am really clear about when my deadlines are. I think one of the things that can happen is that editors can sort of say, “Oh, write a piece, can you write a piece? “And you know, then you don’t really know when you need to publish it, or all this kind of stuff, so I am really clear and ask: “When is the deadline, when do I need to do it?” And then I try and sort of align myself as best I can. I’m always doing a little bit, so I’m doing a bit of research here, and then writing up something there, planning for the next thing, and it’s just trying to juggle everything at the same time. Probably not a very good answer, because I’m really not very good at it, but I try my best.

Jessie: How did you range the chapters in the book?

Well, for me it was really a case of what do you need to know and when. It’s a bit like a journey. Any kind of journalist needs to know how to find a story, so that’s why that needed to be there first. It’s like: How do you fundamentally understand what a story is and where to find it? And then I think what I try to do, I don’t know – that you can tell me, whether I succeeded or not -, but what I try to do is that I try to build it up, so that the information came in ways that if you didn’t really know about anything, you would be able to gradually acquire the information that you needed to become a good journalist. I think there were things like the PR stuff with the press junket material, a lot of that would have been because you know you need to work alongside one to kind of do the other one. So there was some kind of complementary elements to it, but really, it was like I tried to start with the beginning, if you didn’t really know what you were doing – which you will do I’m sure -, and then look at what are the kind of building blocks, so that you get better and better and better and kind of get more and more knowledge.

Yuchen Wang asked: How to deal with bad tempered interviewees?

(laughs) Yes, they’ve been quite a few. How well, I mean, how did I deal with it? Well, I did an interview with a famous Hollywood actor once, who is notoriously bad-tempered when it comes to interviewing. He was quite awkward at the beginning of the interview. He was kind of testing me I suppose. And the way that I dealt with it was that I just said: “You know what, I don’t care who you are, I’m going to plow on.” I think some celebrities – not all people -, but some powerful people, they kind of like testing you. They like showing off their power. And so I think as a journalist, you have to be able to – while you’re not as powerful as they are – you have to be able to stand … there’s a phrase in English called “standing toe to toe with people.” You need to show that you are on a level playing field with them. That you are not going to take any trouble from them, you know? And after I did that, he was completely fine. I kind of stood up and said: “You know what, whatever, let’s get on with it, if you’re gonna be this way, then you’re gonna be this way”, and he immediately changed. So I think that you’ve got to demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable and excited to be there, but also that you’re not going to … that you’re in control! You’re the interviewer, you’re there to do some work: “Let’s get on with it!”

Aurora asked: How do I contact celebrities and expand networks?

Ben Falk is Senior Lecturer in Digital Journalism at Coventry University, UK. An entertainment journalist by trade, Falk has written and recorded for hundreds of outlets across all platforms specialising in films, TV and celebrity. Beginning as a freelancer at Empire while still a student on the postgraduate magazine course at City, the University of London, his career has encompassed a stint as Hollywood correspondent for Press Association (now PA Media) based in Los Angeles, studio producing morning chat shows on Sky Living, being assistant news editor at Look magazine and freelancing for digital outlets including Yahoo Movies UK and BAFTA. In 2018, he published a textbook with Routledge called “Entertainment Journalism: Making it Your Career”, which served as textbook for UIC’s 2021 course “Entertainment Journalism”. When asked whether he could imagine to do a Q & A session with UIC students, he immediately agreed to it. Due to the 7 hour time difference, students recorded their questions on video first, sent them to Ben, who videotaped them back just one day later – if that’s not excellent time management, we don’t know what is! Photo: private

Well, a lot of the work that happens in entertainment journalism happens through what we call ‘the diary’, which is the kind of the things that are organized through the year, but also with PRs, so  … I don’t know how it works in China, so I apologize, but my advice would be to build up relationships with press people. Because even though there are celebrities kind of doing stuff through social media themselves now, they are followed by so many people, particularly in China right? Millions and millions, billions of followers. It’s quite difficult to get their attention, so I think going through the press people is really good, and I think the way to do it, the way I’ve always done it, is: start low. So don’t try and go to someone super high right at the beginning. Start low, go for someone who’s like a little bit of a celebrity, try and get a hold of them. Then you make your way up the ladder, because you’ve built a relationship with the PR. In terms of building your network, just follow lots of people on social media, engage in conversations on social media. I always say, be a part of the community that you want to be a part of. So if you really love movies, follow people who talk about movies. Talk about movies on social media, go to events where people are, go to premieres, go to screenings, whatever it might be, so that you become part of that community. That will, I think, build up your knowledge.

Yasmine asks:  How well do you balance your life and career?

This is right back to Chelsea’s questions. Not very well, I wish I was better at that. Because the thing is that – you’ll find that, too – journalism just bleeds into your life, in good ways and bad ways. Like there’s good ways that it does, but it also bleeds in in difficult ways. I think that’s really down to the individual. I tried the best that I can to not to let it overtake my life. I have a family and so I try and make sure that it’s not all-consuming – that’s probably a bit different when you’re younger. But I tend to leave my phone downstairs when I go to bed, so that I’m not tempted to look at everything when I’m in bed. (laughs) That was a good tip and that’s changed my life.

Coco asks: What’s your most interesting experience?

Oh my goodness, this is really hard. I think probably for me … because I’m a big movie fan, I love films and I spent some time in Los Angeles as a correspondent there. I think that was for me the most interesting, that’s being the greatest part of my job – being in Los Angeles, and seeing the movie industry up close, and how it works, and speaking to the different people that build films. Not just the actors, but the directors, and the writers – and being on sets, and seeing how they build sets, and deal with costumes and makeup. That for me is the most fascinating thing, that kind of ‘behind the scenes’, really figuring out this thing that you see on the big screen, this exciting thing that you see. How is it created, how is it put together? That for me is always being the most interesting thing, standing on a set and go “Oh my goodness, they’re filming a film that will be in this cinema!” That’s super exciting to me.

There was a question that didn’t have a name on it: How to obtain in-depth content while keeping interviewees happy?

It’s really – and there’s stuff in the book about that -, it’s really about building trust in your interviewee as quickly as possible. And that’s something that does come with a lot of practice. I would recommend that you spend a lot of time doing that, with your colleagues, on your course, and, you know, working for wherever you are – your kind of local press and stuff like that. Because it’s about understanding people. I think if you are an empathetic person, if you are good at understanding people, then you can drive a conversation to where you want it to be. You can ask them difficult questions, but you’ve built up a level of trust and understanding which is the kind of thing you need for them to give you more in-depth content, so I think really trying to figure out what makes people tick, being able to understand how someone ticks. You have to be able to understand what someone is expecting out of that situation, what they need from you, how you need to react, so it’s all about understanding people. And the better you can do that and the more quickly you can do that, the more effective you’ll be as an interviewer.

Violet asked: How to deal with PRs?

Yeah, it’s hard (laughs). It is hard, and it can feel difficult sometimes. You feel like you’re making no headway, but the reality is, Violet: I’m sorry, but you have to, it’s just what happens. You have to deal with PRs to make your way in the entertainment industry, so it’s about finding whatever way you can to – again – build relationships with them. I would suggest that you show that you’re willing to do something for them, then they’ll be willing to do something for you. So if you say, you know, “I’ll do something on this very small client that you have”, because then next time they have a slightly bigger more important client, they’ll go: “You know what, Violet – actually why don’t you come and do this interview?” Or they’ll be more happy to let you come and do the interview for someone who’s a bit more, you know, important or famous. So I think doing favors for PR, like speaking to their less famous clients, their less important clients, showing that you want to build up that professional relationship, will then serve you. It takes a bit of time. But I think that can be helpful when you’re dealing with PR. Show them that you’re going to help them, so that then they’ll want to help you.

Jarine asked: How do you maintain relations with social media?

This is a good question. This is really hard. I just think that, you know, you’re not social media experts. You’re not necessarily influencers. I’ve spoken to a lot of journalists, and you don’t need millions and millions of followers. You’re just using social media to find stories, so you’ve got to be able to search it really well. What I would do is ask Markus, and have a look online, and find out ways to really be able to explore social media and search it really intelligently, because that can be a quite difficult thing to do. But also remember that you are journalists, and you know, as I said to Aurora before, just make sure that you’re engaging in the discussions. Don’t just leave it completely. But you don’t need to be on at it twenty four-seven. Engage in the kind of discussions that you want to be a part of. So if you really like fashion, then make sure you’re talking about fashion on social media. If you want to talk about TV, talk about TV on social media, so that people can see that your brand, your personal brand relates to the area that you want to be a part of as a journalist. Because if they can see that, then the employers will notice that you really care about that particular area, and understand that you know a lot about it.

And finally for the first section, Jessica asked: What are the differences between being a journalist and being a ghost writer?

Well, I wrote a biography about Robert Downey Jr, I ghost wrote his book. I didn’t have any contact with him when I was writing it, so actually for me the writing of the book felt like a very journalistic exercise. It was going away, interviewing loads of people, finding the kind of research, and doing all the kind of information digging that I needed to do to get the material for my chapters and for my book. So actually for me, writing the book  felt very like being an entertainment journalist, felt very like being a journalist in general. But I think you’re right about ghost writing, it can be very different. And the honest answer is – I don’t think there is a way around it -, it is essentially a kind of PR exercise. I suppose the only thing that you need to try and do if you are a ghost writer for someone’s book, is make sure that they understand that you’re going to be honest, that you’re going to ask them honest, difficult questions. You’re not going to let them get off the hook, you’re going to not just let them purely tell the story they want to tell with no dark side, “I’m great I’m amazing I’m fantastic.” It’s about them understanding that you’re going to ask them questions about the difficult parts of their life as well as the happier, funnier parts of their life. And when you set about going on this journey of writing a book like that, they need to understand that that’s how you’re going to do it.

I realized I missed a question that Yasmine asked before: If there is one piece of advice you could give to people, what would it be?

My one piece of advice probably is that you can do it. I think sometimes people don’t believe that, young people see a huge gap between where they are and journalism and success and all that. And so as a result, they don’t try or they’re worried that they’ll never reach there. But my thing is always that you totally can do it. There are some people being entertainment journalists in this world – and why shouldn’t it be one of you? I think self-belief, self-confidence, the belief that you can get there, is genuinely the most important thing that you can have. If you don’t believe that you can do it, you probably won’t do it. So believe!

Sylvia asked: How do I get more audiences to like my content?

Good question. I would say a lot of this has to do with social media, because that’s mostly how people engage or at least find content now. So I would be really careful about thinking what kind of audiences exist online or in the world of social media, who I can target my material at. So be really clear about that. It’s not just the case of tweeting out a piece of material or, you know, whatever the various ones you have in China, but it’s actually making sure that you are attracting and telling the people that you think will be most interested in that material, telling them that this material, that your content is there. So I think it’s about really engaging and having those discussions I said earlier about, having those discussions with your community, with the audience. So that they know that your stuff is there. A lot of the time, people love the content that people create, they just don’t know it exists. So it’s about making sure that people know that it exists.

Leanna asked: Why did you want to be an entertainment journalist?

Just because it seemed like a cool job, Leanna! Nothing really more exciting than that. I love films, I love TV, I was always interested in how people made TV and films and music and things, and the idea of working in that and writing for a living was just hugely exciting to me. So that’s why, simple as that. And I also love talking to people, I love finding out about things from people. One of the huge joys of being a journalist is that you get to learn about stuff that you’ve never heard about before, that you don’t know anything about, and you get to become an expert in it very quickly, and you get to talk to really clever people. That’s why I thought that was an amazing opportunity to do that.

Someone – there was no name – asked about the motivation for writing the book.

Well, it was just selfish really. I just thought that the people might be interested. But also, there wasn’t another book out there about the same journalism, so I thought it could be useful for people. Because this area, which lots of people are interested in, there wasn’t really a book out there kind of tackling that. And it was that I teach at a university for a living, so I teach a lot of my students about this stuff, so I thought: Hey, why not put it into a book? Simple as that really.

Lindsey asked: How do you think we can be a good entertainment journalist in China?

Now this is obviously a very hard question for me. I’ve never been to China and I don’t really understand the ecosystem there, so it’s hard for me to say. You are talking about the fact that families in China don’t really want you to be an entertainment journalist, because the job has a bad reputation. But I think entertainment journalism is a really broad idea. There is celebrity journalism, which is much more kind of “Oh my god! Oh my gosh! Such-and-such has cheated on this person!” Or they’re getting divorced etc. And that’s one side of that celebrity journalism, but I think there’s another form of entertainment journalism which is where you’re writing about movies and you’re reviewing music and you’re kind of interviewing people and writing long stories, which is actually not very salacious or not very, you know, dodgy really. So I think there are different kinds of entertainment journalists. And I think if you’re worried about reputation, then focus on writing about art and culture. These things that have huge impact in people’s lives, you know. How many people buy or stream your favorite band song, or how many people buy your favorite author’s book, you know – millions and billions in the case of China. But it means a lot. Art and culture mean a great deal, and so I think writing about that and telling people about that has a great amount of value. So that’s what I would say to people.

Wendy asked: A personal brand, what is it?

It’s just about making sure that people who might hire you understand who you are and what you stand for.

What I mean by that is making sure that your social media presence and your online digital presence reflects who you want to be as a journalist. So it’s not just crazy things left, right ,and center. It’s actually making sure that if you want to be a music journalist, then you know your social media is full of music stuff, and writing, and talking about music, and having discussions about music. If you want to  write about television, then have a personal portfolio website that shows your work, shows what you can do, talks about who you are. It’s about reflecting who you are to the outside world and making sure that employers and everybody else understands who you, Wendy, are. Who you are, what you represent as a journalist and making sure that that brand – personal brand – is strong. So that people recognize what you do and can understand what you do, so they can hire you to do that.

There was another no name, but someone asked: What was the most impressive interview, and how do we connect different audiences to subjective material?

Well, I mean I’ve interviewed a lot of people … (thinks) Probably my most impressive interviewee is Tom Cruise. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, and it’s pretty amazing. He’s an amazing guy, whether you like his films or not, he’s very … he’s a movie star! And you really get a sense of him being a movie star. It’s very dazzling, so yeah, probably Tom Cruise.

In terms of how do we connect different audiences to subjective material – well, it’s kind of your job as a journalist (laughs). It’s about making people understand why they need to care about what you’re writing about. So when you’re choosing something that is subjective, it’s not just about writing for the audience purely who likes that particular thing. It’s about making other people understand why that matters. If you’re writing about a new film,  you know, like a gangster film for example, but you know someone doesn’t like gangster movies – it’s you as a writer who has to figure out what is it about that particular film that other audiences might connect with. Is that the performances, is that the cinematography, is that the brilliant writing, is that the jokes? And that’s what you’re conveying, so that people when they read about something, they don’t necessarily care about it because they’re not passionate about that particular kind of thing, but they can see in your writing why it matters. Again, it goes back to that thing we were talking about in terms of art and culture mattering. It’s like you’re demonstrating to them why that matters in that moment. Hopefully that will make that subjective material a bit more universal.

Bella was asking, it’s sort of a similar question actually: How do you create interesting content out of  rather mediocre content?

Again, I think it’s understanding what audiences want and it’s also being … I talked earlier about how important it is to just to recognize what people like, and what people need. I think that’s what’s crucial. You have to … If you want to elevate your content, it’s about doing loads of research, it’s about asking particularly interesting questions to people, it’s about understanding, you know, writing with a lot of color around a subject. Because if you do that, if you’re creating kind of visceral emotional experience for a reader, when they read or engage with your content, then it’s going to become more interesting to them. So really doing loads of preparation, really doing loads of research, trying to ask people questions they haven’t been asked before – and then using all those tools and using all that information and writing really descriptively, so that the subject you’re writing about is elevated from just this piece of content to something that becomes more interesting for people to read.

And then finally Vanora was asking: Is your book still relevant today? 

I hope so! Because I wrote it 2018.

As I said I, teach a lot of journalism, so I tried to make it the kind of book that would be relevant to young people now rather than just, you know, the oldtimers or whatever. I did say that it was probably more relevant – because that’s my experience – to Western audiences, because that’s what I know, so I apologize that I can’t be more specific to China and Asia. I think it’s experience that I’ve had, but it’s also … I still work as a freelance journalist, I’m not just a teacher. I still work as a freelance journalist so I’m still learning all this stuff, this is all still happening to me. I’m using a lot of this stuff that I’m still doing as a journalist myself, and putting that into the book, and then I’m also taking information that I’ve had from students and experiences they’ve had,  I have been talking to commissioning editors and people who work in the media, and then incorporating that into the book. Those are people who are still working in the industry.

Someone asked: How to hit it big immediately?

That’s a good question. And if I knew the answer, I’d be a millionaire. So I can’t really give you a very good answer, but I would just say: Work really hard, read loads, so that you know what is going on … You should be reading everything that is out there, and also recognizing that writing is really difficult. I think some people think that writing about entertainment, that probably goes back to the question from earlier about people having a bad reputation – they think it doesn’t require skill. Entertainment journalism requires writing skill, people skills, interviewing skills, news skills, all of the things that make up being a great journalist are incorporated into being an entertainment journalist. So you need to practice, practice, practice. Work really hard on your craft with Markus, with your university, in your own time, on social media, in your own blog, whatever it might be, work really hard, hone your skills, read a lot of professional materials, so that you’re able to see what people who do it well can do, and emulate that. And there is lots of luck involved! So there is going to be luck involved, but also it’s about trying to put yourself into situations where you can create your own luck. So go to events. When you get an opportunity to speak to professionals in the industry, speak to them. Really contact people on social media, journalists on social media, ask them whether you can meet up for a couple of tea or coffee or whatever it might be. Ask them how they do what they do. Talk to them, say “Well done” for writing a particular article, because if you do all of that and you put yourself in these situations and you get yourself known by people in the industry – then you’ve got much more of an opportunity to be successful.

Above all, I think you need to have ideas. Great journalists have a constant flow of ideas all the time. So that  you always have opportunities to pitch something, to suggest something to someone. And the more ideas you have, the more creative you are, the more appealing and more exciting you’ll be for an editor or for an employer. Because they’ll know that you’ll be able to come into the office and offer a lot every single time that you come into the office.

I wish you all the best with your studies. Thank you very much for your questions. Thank you so much for reading my book. It means a great deal to me. I hope you got something out of it. All the best and have a great rest of your time and a great career. You deserve it. Remember, you can do it. Bye!

Video transcript: DENG Qi (Chelsea). Editing, blurb and layout: ZHANG Yizhu (Bella) and ZHANG Lian (Katherine). Screenshots and photos: Markus Heidingsfelder. Selfie: XIAO Tianqi (Edward).