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Practical tips to starting your journalism career

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Random tips for journalists

 

Introduction

 

A career in journalism is a rewarding one offering meaningful work. As a journalist you have opportunities to inform, enlighten, entertain, and—sometimes—change lives. The job offers variety; each day is different. You have the chance to connect with different people, learn new things every day and possess an understanding of what is happening in your community.

 

1) The first step: The internship

 

This is an industry that rewards strong, committed work with advancement. Getting there takes more than a journalism degree and references from professors. It takes experience. An internship is your ticket there. Just like most things in life, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. An internship is an opportunity to learn skills, make connections, produce examples of your published work and find out if this is the right career for you.

 

Getting one

 

Many students may dream about interning at larger newspapers like The Chicago Tribune or The Charlotte Observer. There is great value to working in a large newsroom and making connections with journalists who have made it this far, but an internship at a large, metro paper in a big city may be difficult to obtain. Furthermore, with the prestige of interning at a large paper often goes clerical and research work.

 

Interns at smaller papers, however, often write front page stories their first week. A smaller staff can allow you to interact more closely with other staff members including copy editors, photographers, and online editors. You will probably receive more attention at a smaller paper. Interns at a community paper often have more responsibilities and a wider range of coverage opportunities.

 

In May, newspaper editors may field dozens of phone calls and emails from young, aspiring journalists searching for a summer internship. Get ahead of them. Send an e-mail in the winter. Give the dates you will be available to work and the times. Tell the editor what you are willing to do.

 

One of the things you should be willing to do is write stories, include a list of at least 10 story ideas. Make sure those ideas are all local. Explore the paper’s website, and read through the calendars in the newspaper from church events to art classes and even the classifieds to find local story ideas. Search community websites, such as the chamber of commerce, the county’s school system and more. In doing this, you will learn about the community and find story ideas.

 

Your well-researched story list will show an editor what you can offer the paper. Follow up with a phone call after you send the email. If you don’t hear back immediately, try again. Persistence pays off, but don’t go to the point of harassment. If you haven’t heard back after leaving a few messages and emails, move on to another newspaper.

 

Congrats you’re an intern. Now what? Be an asset

 

Interns frequently create more work for editors—sometimes, more work than they are worth.

 

Interns may have little or no knowledge of AP style. Their copy may be sloppy and filled with grammatical errors and inaccuracies. Their writing may read more like a college term paper than the clear, straightforward style of newspaper writing.

 

With those interns, the editor has to take time out of his or her day to find something for the intern to do. Editors hate those interns.

 

Don’t be one of those interns. Learn AP style. Read newspapers— lots of them—every single day and not just The New York Times, but your hometown paper as well. Pay attention to the language used in the articles, the length of the articles and the sources in the stories. Make sure to read a variety of stories and not just national news. Read those stories about the church group crocheting blankets for the poor, the city budget, and fatal car crashes.

 

Avoid inaccuracies at all costs. One of the most common and easily avoidable mistakes is misspelling someone’s name. Always ask. Ask Bob Smith to spell his name. An editor may forgive you for misspelling a person’s name, but it will never be forgotten. After interviewing a source, go over the facts to make sure they are accurate. Don’t offer to send the story to a source before it’s published. Many papers have policies against this. Check with an editor. Usually, a source will rethink what he said and will want to revise until your piece reads like a press release.

 

Learn how to post your stories on the newspaper’s website. Shoot video and photos if possible. Most newspapers now see themselves as content gatherers and producers and concentrate on their website as much as on their print product. Find out what the paper is doing on its website and social media. Volunteer to help with those efforts. These skills will help you land a job later.

 

Preparation will give you a stronger knowledge of the community you are covering. A dedicated commitment to accuracy and openness to expanding your multimedia skills shows the editor you are worth the extra work.

 

Get the most out of your internship

Working with seasoned professionals in the industry will be invaluable as you build your experience. Forming connections and building relationships will help you learn from these professionals. They will care more about you when they see your dedication to learning and willingness to work in the newsroom.

 

Learn from others

 

Reporters

Seek out the best, most productive reporters in the newsroom. Listen when they interview someone on the phone. Pay attention to their tones, what questions they ask, and how they manage their time. Request to go with them on an assignment. Ask questions.

 

Newsroom staff

Get to know the photographers, the webmaster, copyeditors, page designers and other newsroom staff. These people often have long careers in journalism and possess great knowledge about the industry.  They offer a different perspective from reporters and editors. Ask them questions about their job. It is important to understand what others do in a newsroom.

 

Editors

During your internship, ask your editor or city editor how you’re progressing and what you need to work on to improve your reporting and writing. Take notes about what she or he says and heed the advice.

 

Before your internship comes to an end, ask for another meeting with the editor to get some feedback on your overall performance. You get a lot of feedback as a student, but in the workforce you will need to seek it to receive it. Find out exactly what you are good at and what you need to improve. Again, take notes. The praise will give you talking points down the road for job interviews. “During my internship, my editor told me my copy was clean and my multimedia skills were impressive.”

 

Concentrate on improving in the areas you receive criticism. If you are told you are a slow writer, work on that. Research ways to improve your speed.

 

Diversify and save

 

Write as much as possible during your internship on a variety of topics. A diverse portfolio of clips will help when you start your job search. Keep a log of your story links in one place so you can send these as clips. Many reporters simply attach their links in their resume. This is fine, but keep paper copies in case the links become inactive on the website. You may also want to scan the stories and save them as pdfs to send electronically when applying for a job.

 

Maintain good relations

 

Before you leave, ask the editor and other staff you worked with, including reporters and photographers, if you can use them as professional references. After you leave, send thank you letters to the editors and other staff you worked with. Let them know you appreciate the time and attention they gave you. It’s professional and courteous. It may also help them remember you fondly when they get that call from an editor checking your references.

 

2) The second step: The first job

 

Landing one

 

You should use many of the steps you used in getting an internship for landing your first job. Research the newspapers where you are interested in working. Do more than plug in the newspaper’s name in your cover letter. Write about specific projects the paper has produced, some of their community service projects, and regular features of the paper that impress you.

 

Then, quickly move on to what you will bring to the paper. If you have had an internship, tell what you accomplished there. List the software you have worked with and your computer skills. Give your clips. (Most editors and HR managers want clips sent electronically so make sure those links are still live before you send them.)

 

If the paper offers you an interview, you need to do more research. Read the paper for several days. Make sure to read that day’s paper cover to cover. If you get a chance to meet the lifestyles editor, mention how much you enjoyed the package on summer gardening or dog training.

 

Come to the interview with a list of questions that showcase your interest in the work. Ask about a typical day at the paper, the culture in the newsroom, the connection between the paper and the community and government leaders, and projects about which the editor is particularly proud.

 

The next day, send a thank you note, and wait for an offer before asking about the 401k or vacation time and salary.

 

Manage your beat

 

Being a good reporter means more than showing up at meetings or crime scenes. It means getting to know people and gaining their trust enough so they will tell you information. This trust comes from continual contact with your sources.

 

Cultivating good sources is not about being liked; it’s about being respected and trusted to get the information right. The first step to establishing this trust is after the first interview and story with that source. Call him or her and ask his or her thoughts about the story you wrote. Too often a source will spend time with a reporter and won’t hear from her or him for months until that reporter wants another story. Checking back with the source shows you care about accuracy. This fosters trust.

 

This is especially important because in your career, you will write about things that will embarrass a source or illustrate a source’s failing. Accurate and responsible reporting will enable you to write about the bad stuff and still have that person respect you.

 

Check regularly with a list of sources. Call them at least once a week and find out what’s happening. Keep a list of your contacts. Every time you get a new number, log it, especially cell phone numbers. Make sure everyone has yours.

 

Get out and get connected

 

Don’t do your reporting by phone. You will get more information and connect more by interviewing someone in their office or home. Reporters who do most of their reporting by phone are lazy. Their stories are bland and lack details. Getting out of the newsroom will make you a stronger reporter with vivid and compelling stories.

 

Getting out of the newsroom extends to your social life as well. A journalist who simply goes to work and then home to watch Netflix will not be a good journalist. A good journalist is connected to the community. Join a club. Volunteer on a board; be a mentor. If you’re religious, join a local church. Not are only such interactions the source of stories, but you will be a happier and better journalist with a stronger connection with people in the community about which you are reporting.

 

Become a good planner

 

One of the best perks of being a journalist is having control of how you spend your days. But it’s only a perk if you know how to plan. Never come to work without knowing what you will do that day. Make a weekly story budget and follow it. The assignment editor, who usually doesn’t get out of the office much, will have a list of needed stories, stories about church fundraisers, blood drives, and retirements—in other words, boring assignments. Those without a plan that day will be sure to get those.

 

Knowing your beat, knowing what’s happening in the community, and having a plan are the best ways to give you control over how you spend your days, and the best ways to further your career. Clips filled with obituaries and town council meetings will not impress editors at larger papers.

 

Take on projects

 

You’re compiling a diverse portfolio of clips, but what you really need are large projects. These projects are your calling card when you knock on the doors of larger papers. A project could become a series and ultimately a press award, which improves a resume and turns the heads of editors at larger papers. A strong project shows you are capable of producing more than coverage of events and news. They show you are an enterprising reporter who can develop larger, meaningful pieces.

 

A project is a whole package deal. You will need a strong multimedia component, info graphics and striking photos to complement your reporting. So first, find a topic that is meaningful to you. Then collaborate with an editor, the online editor, photographers, and graphic artist about your project.

 

Remember you’re going to have to juggle a large project while still managing a beat. So plan. Make an outline for your project with your own deadlines of what you want to accomplish. Share it with your editor. Include your work planned in your weekly work budget. Let editors know what you are working on when.

 

When it comes to working on the project, keep a separate notebook for your project work. Don’t mix it in with your notes on city council meetings. Write after every interview. If you put it off, you will forget valuable information, details, and images for the story.

 

Continue growing

 

Embrace change in your career. If an editor wants to change your beat, go for it. This helps you become a diverse, enterprising journalist who is capable of more than just being good at a specific beat. It stretches your comfort level, challenges you to cultivate a different group of sources and teaches you more. It helps you grow as a journalist.

 

A growing journalist should also do more than just write stories. When covering breaking news, post updates on the website throughout the day. Learn to tweet, blog and use other social media in your reporting. If you aren’t doing this, know that plenty of others are.

 

Another thing that helps you grow as a journalist is avoiding gossip. Newsrooms are often infested with a few gossips. Don’t be one of them. Don’t get hung up on what others aren’t doing. You wrote 10 stories last week and they wrote three. Well, guess where they will be in five years? Where will you be? Besides, it’s not your problem; it’s the editor’s.

 

Keep an eye on the future

 

Network. Get to know leaders in the industry. Talk to journalism professors at universities in your state. Many editors call them looking for the names of good reporters.

 

Go to lots of seminars like the ones your state’s press association holds for journalists throughout the year. If your paper won’t send you, take the days off and pay for the seminars yourself. They are usually inexpensive, provide valuable training, and are a great place to meet leaders from other area papers. Exchange business cards. Befriend a reporter there and keep in contact.

 

Interested in working for some other papers? Send them your resume and clips—even if they are not advertising a position. Follow up with a phone call. You never know when they will have an opening, and an editor will remember that persistent reporter who sends a resume every six months with updated clips.

 

Be willing to move to another newspaper that is smaller than your dream job. If it is a larger operation with a larger circulation than your current one, it is often an improvement and may bring you closer to your goal paper.

 

Exit gracefully

 

When leaving your first paper, exit gracefully. Often no matter the dedication and good work you have done, the memory of you there will be how you left. Speak positively of the paper and the people you worked with. Express your gratitude for your time there.

 

Being a journalist is an important job. As journalists we can change lives and change a community. It’s also rewarding. In few other jobs do you have such control over how you spend your days and so many opportunities to learn new things. Our work is an honor to have and a great responsibility. Treat it as such and the rewards can be endless.

 

 

Megan Ward (mward@hpe.com) is editor of the High Point Enterprise in High Point, North Carolina.

 

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