Your tassel has been turned and you’ve gotten your diploma. Many of you have had the bittersweet moment of putting your last edition of the school newspaper to bed. I’m sure your professors, graduation speakers, parents and mentors have all given you more sage advice than you know what to do with, but somehow you’ve stumbled upon this post. While I can’t promise to offer “sage” advice, I can promise you honesty. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the world of modern journalism that you’re about to step into.
JOURNALISM IS UNDER FIRE
Let’s just start with the big elephant in the room, shall we. You are entering journalism during an increasingly polarized time. There are good, balanced news outlets, but there are also far left news outlets, far right news outlets, and of course fake news all vying for the already short attention-span of the American news audience.
Regardless of where you land a job, your very profession is being questioned daily. To a degree it has always been this way, but distrust in the media has picked up in the last two years. You enter this profession at a time when politicians think nothing of body slamming reporters for asking questions.
In addition, a large portion of your audience wants news that confirms their beliefs rather than news that brings new information or challenges those beliefs. It isn’t uncommon to be called both a liberal socialist and a right-wing extremist the same day over the same report. People often find what they are looking for even if it isn’t there.
THERE ARE MORE THAN TWO SIDES TO MOST STORIES
Good journalism, we are told, seeks to get both sides of the story. As you advance through your career, you will find that there are often more sides than that. Your job is to find every perspective, even those that are marginalized or muted. Not every republican wants to see Hillary Clinton in jail and not every democrat wants to see Donald Trump impeached. There is a vast middle-ground in every community. Be careful not to only give voice to the extreme ends of any issue, whether it is hyperlocal or national.
THE PHONE WILL NOT BITE YOU
You are the texting and social media generation. However, the fastest and most efficient way to get in touch with most of your sources is by picking up a phone and making a call. Phone and in-person interviews are still the bread and butter of journalism. They allow you to guage the tone and emotion of a source’s response in ways that writing can’t.
In some cases, email may be a source’s preferred method of communication, but if you’re having trouble getting in touch with someone, don’t forget to pick up the phone. Also, don’t ever tell your editor you can’t get in touch with someone if you haven’t tried to call them. And always leave a message.
THEY WEREN’T JOKING ABOUT THE PAY
Okay, so you know journalism doesn’t pay well. Surely someone has told you that by now. Whoever they were, they weren’t kidding. You didn’t get in this for the money and if you did, you picked the wrong field. If you’re like most of us, you’ll gladly accept the job offer and the pay will sound do-able. Still, you may be shocked to see how much you actually make after insurance, 401k and taxes are taken out of your first paycheck. It’ll be OK. Hopefully, you didn’t buy a brand new car when you graduated.
PR IS TO BUSINESS AS PROPOGANDA IS TO GOVERNMENT
As a brand new reporter, you’re about to make a lot of new friends in the public relations sector. They will view you as fresh meat and call you to pitch story ideas, and as a young reporter, these ideas may sound great to you. Keep in mind that Public Relations folks work for companies and want you to report on the most positive aspects of their company. They are, in essence, the propoganda arm of a business. Be careful and always look for the deeper story. You still need to know important details that a company spokesperson may not want to disclose. It’s nice that they have a new CEO, but what happened to the old CEO?
IT TAKES TIME TO FIND YOUR “VOICE”
A handful of print journalists have found their writing voice by the time they have their first job. The majority haven’t discovered it yet. That’s normal, it will come in time. Your newsroom will probably have a preferred way they want stories to flow. Even if you think you have a well-developed writing voice, you probably aren’t going to get to use it right off the bat. Don’t be frustrated or beligerent about it, this is part of paying your dues.
YOU WILL WEAR MANY HATS
Today’s journalists are not specialized like they used to be. More and more, everyone is on a general assignment beat along with something else. You’ll take photos and videos in addition to reporting on the news of the day. You’ll post to social media and your news organization’s website. This can be stressful, but you are growing your skill set and that’s not a bad thing. Do each assignment to the best of your ability, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. The newsroom response to “That’s not my job,” is “Find another one.”
YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES
Not only will you wear a lot of hats and have a lot of job responsibilities beyond just reporting, but you’re also going to have a lot of reporting to do. Even if it is a “slow news day,” the same number of inches have to be filled in print and the same number of minutes have to be accounted for in broadcast. With all of this information flying at you and all of these job duties, you’re bound to make mistakes. Don’t pass the blame, take offense, or beat up on yourself. Mistakes are how you learn.
THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE PAID TO LIE TO YOU
This may shock you, but there are actually people out there who are paid to lie to you or misdirect you. It is usually a spokesperson of some kind. Remember that people who work for people have the interests of their employer at heart. Your integrity or the accuracy of your reporting is not as important to them as their ability to put food on the table. Expect it, and make sure you always attribute information to sources and ask those sources enough questions to get past the misinformation.
LISTEN TO THE VETERANS
Yes, they are older than you. No, they aren’t sure if you can cut it in journalism. Yes, they are kind of curmudgeons. But, the veterans of the newsroom know more than a thing or two about journalism. They probably won’t have any problem giving you some advice or criticism early on. Listen to them. In fact, don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Not only do they know the craft better than you do, they may actually know your beat better.
CRITICISM IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF JOURNALISM
I’ll be brutally honest. If you don’t have a thick skin, this isn’t for you. Criticism is essential to what we do. Your editors will critique your work. The public will critique your work. Often, the public will take it to the next level and criticize you as a person. Whether you like it or not or expect it or not, you are a public figure now. You will need to learn how to separate warranted criticism from unwarranted, and you’ll need to learn how to take good criticism into account while not letting undeserved criticism keep you from doing your job.
THE NEWSROOM ISN’T GOING TO CODDLE YOU
Up until now, you’ve been in environments where the goal was your individual success. Your parents had a goal of raising you into the adult you have become, your teachers and professors had a goal of educating you and getting you through school. Your success has always been at the forefront. The newsroom doesn’t care about your personal success.
The newsroom cares about the success of the organization, meeting deadline, and producing an accurate report of the day’s events. You may from time to time find an editor or colleague who cares deeply about your success, and you should treasure those relationships if you have them. You are a part of something bigger now and you have responsibilities to uphold.
YOU ARE A REPRESENTATIVE
Along those same lines, remember when I said you were a public figure? You are actually a public figure who represents the organization you work for. You’re welcome to have political views, but you’re not allowed to let those carry over into your work. You also want to stay away from bumper stickers and yard signs that express your allegiance to a candidate or party.
Also, your personal life isn’t off limits. A DUI or an ill-timed social media post can cost you your job. We all know that our views and actions aren’t always the views and actions of our employers, but the public doesn’t always understand that and at a time when journalism is being questioned the way it is, there is less tolerance for this sort of thing.
Those of us who defend and protect the first amendment often have to voluntarily sacrifice some of its assurances in our own lives.
PEOPLE DON’T TRUST YOU
Journalists are seen as less trustworthy than lawyers and used car salesmen. Don’t be shocked that people don’t trust you and don’t see your profession in as noble of a light as you do. You’re going to help change that perception, but right now, we play the hand we’re dealt. Politicians and public officials kind of have to talk to you, but you will find that a lot of average, everyday people don’t want to return your calls.
You need to do this both inside and outside of the newsroom. The best journalists are the ones who ask their editors “Why do we do this?” That is the sort of question that leads to innovation. Whether in the field or the newsroom, you need to do this with respect, otherwise you won’t get anywhere. It is your job to question elected officials and you should never back down in that pursuit. When dealing with government, never accept the stated reason as fact.
DON’T BURY THE LEDE
You already know this, but it bears repeating. Frequently. Every day. Say it to yourself five times when you get out of bed in the morning.
SUBSCRIBE TO A NEWSPAPER
You can’t expect others to support journalism if you don’t do it yourself. If you work for a newspaper, I’d also suggest subscribing to one that isn’t your own. That prevents you from getting tunnel vision and allows you to see what other news organizations in your area are doing.
YOU’RE IN THE ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS
You may not like this one, but it is a painful truth. While there may be a few people who consume what we call “the news” to be informed, the majority of your audience consumes news in order to be entertained. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on important issues, but you will from time to time need to feed your audience’s desire for entertainment so that they might consume news about important issues and matters as well.