A previous professor of mine, from the University of Idaho, held a brain trust on an alumni Facebook page this week.
“I’m taking over Reporting I in the fall,” he said. “What are essential skills that these students need to succeed in journalism, broadcasting and public relations?”
The answers rolled in like a large wave. Recent graduates and alumni from years ago came prepared with advice.
Today there are more students still looking towards journalism, reporting and broadcasting as a career choice. When I was in school I remember my professor and adviser for the student newspaper The Argonaut, Shawn O’Neal, would always remind us that if we were looking for a job that bought us nice homes and would let us buy new cars, it was time to turn around.
But those who love journalism, who are truly passionate about the work, find a way to make it a viable career. So students still take journalism classes and in those first classes two things happen; many students realize they do not like the pressure and deadline based work of journalism so they switch to a different major, and a few students realize their calling and start living and breathing newsprint. I miss the smell of newsprint.
But those who love journalism, who are truly passionate about the work, find a way to make it a viable career.
So this professor, looking to teach an intro reporting class this fall, asked his old students what they wished they had learned those first days in school, a lot of solid advice and real nuggets of wisdom started rolling in.
Here are just a few pieces of advice that every journalism student should consider;
- Think critically.
I am guilty of forgetting what a phone book is. Maybe it’s a millennial thing. I remember becoming frustrated because I couldn’t find a sources home phone number and complaining to my editor. He silently walked away, went to a cabinet almost none of us used, grabbed a phone book and dropped it on my keyboard.
Students should learn to use more than just Google to look up contact information. And really great reporters do more than just make phone calls – they get up and go to their source for a face to face interview.
Another great example is a story my husband, Zachary, has from his reporting days. Zachary was reporting in a small town in Oregon after the state of Washington legalized recreational marijuana. During a conversation with the town’s police chief, the chief told Zachary that ever since marijuana was legalized in Washington, Washington police saw a large surge in deaths from car crashes.
Now, a reporter can take the police chief’s word and put that information in their story. But a good reporter who is able to think critically might want to check their source’s information first. Sure the police chief is a seemingly reliable source, but a reporter can never be too sure.
So Zachary went and called the Washington State Police, and a public information officer told Zachary that, yes, there was an uptick in fatal car crashes, but it was not unusual and there was no data that linked the uptick to the recent legalization of marijuana. Zachary could have taken what the Oregon police chief had said and not questioned it, but by using critical thinking he was able to find more accurate information from an additional source.
If you are stuck on a question or need more information, think about where you can find that information or who might have the information you need.
- Learn the basic systems and workings of government entities, organizations and more.
Take time and effort to learn the basics of government, elections and large entities in your region of coverage. Don’t try to learn as you go, learn it beforehand. It will save you a lot of stress, headaches and annoyed looks from your editors.
- Learn to stick to a deadline.
Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. They are the glue that keeps a newspaper, a television station and website running. Deadlines are not just some arbitrary thing an editor comes up with to make a reporters life more difficult. At one of my old newspapers if a reporter was writing the centerpiece story for the Sunday edition, it was due the Tuesday before. That gave the editors enough time to read it, the reporter enough time to make changes and add information, and it gave our designers enough time to place the story and add the appropriate graphics.
When someone in our newsroom didn’t meet a deadline, whether it was for a valid reason or not, it put more work on the rest of the team. Oh, Billy didn’t get that piece he’s was supposed to work on all week in by Wednesday? That means someone else needs to find a story to fill that spot. Just meet your deadlines!
- Learn multiple skills including writing, photography, video and design.
Don’t be a purist. The times of a typewriter reporter are dead. As I’ve stated before in this blog, today’s reporter has to be able to juggle multiple skills. I regret only taking one class on broadcasting. I wish I had learned how to do more than basic editing and video. Everything is moving online which means every news source is going to need print, photos, graphics and video. Learn them all.
- Stick to the basics.
Learn the basics and then practice the basics. A good student will start with memorizing the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics. Learn how to find and keep sources, find out how to check facts beyond a 10 second Google search and write tight. These are the foundations of a good journalist. These are the building blocks where some of our greatest reporters stood. And keep up with the practice. Great reporters go back and relearn the basics consistently.
I am envious of students who are starting out as a journalism major. They are about to find themselves entrenched in a new sort of family. Reporting and journalism is an exciting career. By following the sage advice of seasoned reporters, students can save themselves a lot of headaches and mistakes a long the way.