At the beginning of the semester, Katherine Reed gave us the link to a student’s blog post of advice to incoming reporters. And as I look back on the semester, I can’t help but think about some of the things I wish I could go back and tell myself in those few hours before orientation, when I sat nervously on the floor in my dorm room and wondered how I was going to get through the semester in one piece.
And looking back, I can think of a lot of things I’d tell myself, or anyone coming into their first semester of reporting, for that matter. So I thought I’d put a few things down here, in case anyone particularly similar to me finds themselves in the Missourian newsroom in the near future.
Here’s my advice for making a semester at the Missourian a good one:
- Start early. If you are like me, the couple of days leading up to and beginning your reporting semester will make you so nervous you legitimately think you are going to vomit. That’s okay. But don’t let it stop you. The first couple of days, I legitimately forced myself in the newsroom, if only just to sit there and convince myself everything was going to be all right. And the sitting and convincing was actually what got me my first couple of clips and gave me a running start in the newsroom. Yes, it’s nerve wracking when you first start out, but just go. It’s worth it.
- Find balance. Coming into my reporting semester, I tried to strike a balance in terms of free time for the newsroom and outside activities. I made a point to not be overly involved in extracurriculars, but I also made sure I kept a couple. And those couple of things were absolutely invaluable in keeping me grounded and keeping me from pretty much living in the newsroom. So I guess my thought here is don’t get rid of all your outside activities for the sake of reporting, but don’t overload yourself either. Also, don’t be afraid to take a day off every once in a while. Sometimes you really do need to step back and make yourself cool down. Learning to report is stressful. Accept it, and learn what your limits are and how much it is appropriate to push them.
- Make friends with your beat. Seriously, one of the best parts of my semester was forming relationships with and working with the other people on my beat. We were a pretty tight-knit bunch, and I think that really encouraged me to keep going when I was feeling frustrated with myself or with reporting. Not to mention that we made some awesome baked goods.
- Realize that you are here to learn. I struggle sometimes with holding to myself to standards that, if I’m honest, aren’t realistic. I’m not saying don’t expect a lot from yourself. You should. And you should hold yourself to a high standard. But realize that this is probably the first time that you are doing this caliber of journalism. Your editors have been doing it for years and years and years. And they get that there’s a difference. It’s okay to make a mistake if you learn from it and do your best not to make it again. It’s okay if your editor has to completely restructure your story. Just learn from it. Grow from it. Realize that you are going to improve, and work toward that. You aren’t Woodward and Bernstein. (Unless that’s really your name. In which case, I’m jealous.)
- Be willing, be available. I got at least a few clips by being willing to go to an event on a day or two’s notice. In fact, at least once, it was an hour or two’s notice. If you make yourself available to writing stories, you’ll get more, and people will trust you to write them. You don’t have to always drop everything and write a clip, but if all you have is the reading that you know you honestly won’t do anyway, then consider flexibility.
- Serve your readers, not your sources. Your purpose as a journalist is to convey the facts to your sources. One of the hardest things I learned this semester was how to call a source out when they didn’t have their facts straight. And this was tough. I’m a nice person. I don’t really like to call anyone out. But as a journalist, it’s always important to remember who you’re serving.
- It doesn’t have to be “sexy,” you just need to be there. You’re going to cover some things that are honestly pretty cool. You’ll get a top read story for the week and feel good about yourself. But sometimes, you’re going to write something that really isn’t all that exciting. You’ll go to a meeting and wonder if any of this is really important. It is. We’re there for the public, and it doesn’t matter if what is said is earth-shattering or not. The public has the right to know, and that’s what matters. Also, you feel pretty smart when you can explain how tax levies work, and that’s also cool.
- Enjoy yourself. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but think about it. There’s a chance you’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life. Make the most of what you can learn, and try to do things you care about. Your semester will be stressful no matter how you look at it, but that doesn’t mean it will be bad. I actually rather enjoyed my semester of reporting now that I look back on it. Yes, it was incredibly stressful, but I grew a lot, became a way better journalist and met some awesome people. I’d call that a fairly successful semester.