Editor’s note: I started this post on my birthday, a little over a month ago. Apparently drinking mojitos alone on your birthday while you’re sick means you’ll feverishly start blog posts and then totally forget they exist. Oops. I have been thinking about this post for a while though and apparently was pretty far along, so I’m going to finish it up. With some editing for drunken stupor.
So I’ve been thinking a lot the last few weeks. I’ve been wearing several different hats at the JT, and it’s made me think about the qualities needed to be a journalist, no matter what kind. So here’s my list, composed in my head over days of stories. (I may add to this post or create a new one when I come up with more.)
1. Curiosity: You must always be thinking, “Why?”
Why do you have to bore 1 1/2 inches into that tree to treat it? Can the people still live in the house after the fire? Why did that alderman vote that way in that controversial ordinance? What signs mean you have a ghost in your house? (Yes seriously, I did a story on a ghost hunting group this summer.)
2. Persistence: You have to always be ready to call back.
So, so, so many times this summer I’ve waited for a call back from someone, only to call them an hour later and have them be free and willing to talk. People, myself included, aren’t good at returning messages. But if you call them while they’re slogging through their afternoon work email, they’ll be happy enough to take a break and talk to you about something they actually care about.
3. Personality: Connect with your sources.
People, especially in smaller towns, love to have their name in the paper. Despite dropping circulation, the paper is still the first way people get their news, be it the print or online edition. And if you chat them up first, they won’t mind telling you intrusive details like their age and occupation. Honestly, they’ll feel flattered by the attention. But in return you have to really listen. You have to take notes on what they say, get them to tell you what they were thinking and feeling, and then come back to the office and synthesize it into a 12 inch article. If you do it right, people will email you to thank you. If you do it wrong, your editor is bound to know. So make sure to connect.
4. Composure: You WILL do awkward things in the name of a story, get used to it.
Last week, a woman died in a car crash in Sturtevant, a suburb-ish area absorbed into Racine. My first day as cops reporter was filled with calling every single Stewart in the local area to ask if they were related to her. Then the city clerk. My fellow reporter Stephanie called the local councilman to see if he knew. Ultimately, no one had any idea who she was, but let me tell you, I have had to do far less awkward things than call up random households and say, “Hi, is this the Stewart residence? Yes, my name is Alicia, I’m calling from the Journal Times. Are you related to Judy Stewart? No? Thanks much.” But you do it anyway.
5. Meticulousness: The Devil is in the details
This seems totally self-explanatory, (how can you be a good journalist if you’re not detail oriented and vaguely OCD, right?) but it’s not. I’ve partnered with some journalists in college that were possibly the least organized people I know, and it showed in their work, their grades, and I imagine in their later job search. You have to know more about your story than you put into it. Not just most of the time, but ALL the time. You have to dig. Why this? Who’s that? Why was he there? How do you feel about him being there? How will this affect that random thing over there? This goes back to #1, but holds a different side. Don’t just ask why, make sure you have ALL the why.
Also. make sure you don’t lose your pen. Having like 10 in your purse is a good start.
6. Patience: Or how you will work the weirdest hours of your life in this job
Here’s the thing no one tells you in college about being a journalist. (Or maybe someone did and I just forgot about it in my enthusiasm to write things for money.) You will work the most whack hours ever. Some days you’ll come in at 7:30 and be out by 3:00. Some days you’ll come in at noon and leave at 9. Some days, and these are the worst, you will come in at 9 a.m. and work till 9 p.m. You will likely be expected to write an article at the end of this 12 hour day. Probably more like two or three. It doesn’t matter that the last thing you ate was a bagel around 3 p.m. That’s just how it works. If you want a 9-5, do something else.
Alright, there you have it. After months of consideration, here’s my list. It may update or change the further I get into this job, but the key principles stand.
P.S. I have an awesome job as a real reporter for the Reedsburg Times-Press now! Yay, I have a big girl job! You can find all my articles online, published every Wednesday and Saturday at http://www.wiscnews.com/reedsburgtimespress/. Yeah, that’s what’s up.