This past week, I had a chance to visit my old high school and its newspaper The Panther Press. While the school holds little in the way of good memories, for me the newspaper was one of its saving graces.
As the editor of the Spotlight Section, I had a small cabal of writers who would help me profile students and teachers at the school for our readers. It was an interesting position and it certainly taught me a lot about what to expect going into journalism school a few years later.
Going into the staff room with the students sitting around me made me realize two things: I’m freaking old now and there is a lot I wish someone had told me before going into this profession. As a blogger, I write about basically anything, but as a journalist I’m focused on telling human stories from the Japanese Canadian community in Canada and exploring video games of all kinds.
So here are a few pointers for aspiring journalists from one who is still green around the edges.
Pick a subject and master it
What they won’t tell you going into journalism school is that this is not the end all be all. In other words, going into a four-year program at Ryerson, Carlton, or at the University of Toronto is only the first steps in learning what it takes to be a journalist.
Hell, I graduated and I’m still learning new things daily. What I will say is that you should pick a subject, master it, and make it your own. This doesn’t mean you go out, pick up a copy of Chomsky’s Manufacturing of Consent and memorize it. I mean find something you love and write.
If you find a journalist on Twitter or any social media platform, you will find that they have two things they write about: their job and their main interest. For someone like Robert Benzie of the Toronto Star he Tweets about Rob Ford, since it’s the media’s job right now, and football. Having something you can call your own is one of the best ways you can find an audience who wants to hear what you have to say and perhaps read some of your other work. However, you need to be a master of your subject matter. It isn’t enough to have an opinion, but you need to substantiate it with knowledge.
Education is a slippery slope
Journalism school is a funny thing. While you can go, excel at everything, and find a job right when you graduate rarely does that actually happen. What actually happens is that many students will go back to school right after to study within other industries like public relations, corporate communications, and law. It’s part of a journalism student’s job to spend his or her time at school looking for places to write, but you can’t forget your academics. Becoming a journalist is one part learning how to interact with people, but it’s also about being learned.
Studying things like Canadian politics, as an example for Canadian students, is invaluable no matter what beat you go into. Knowing how our government is structured will help you understand the power relationships that exists throughout our society. Why can’t Rob Ford be impeached? If you study up in university then you’ll know why without having to ask… I had to ask…, and this also applies to everything in school. Studying journalism is important, but don’t limit yourself to just that.
While journalism school will help you along the way, as a young journalist you need to be read up on your civics, city politics, science and technology, Internet culture, and literature. If you want to get into sports journalism you better know about every one of Toronto’s teams rather than just cherry picking one. When that job opens up that requires a specific base of know-how needed it’s better to know than not. This also helps you go into other programs just in case at the end of your four years you decide journalism ain’t for you.
Read everything you can and take notes
It sounds simple enough: Pick up a newspaper, take notes on what you see, and then apply it to your own work? It’s a lot harder to do this in real life. As a journalist, your stories need three things: they need facts, they need strong writing, and they need eye-catching headlines. These three aspects of your work ensures that your stories will be read and not just glossed over.
Did you know about Betteridge’s law of headlines? I sure as hell didn’t until my soul mate told me about it a few weeks ago. It basically states that any headline with a “?” included in it will result in a resounding answer of “No” by the end of the article. Funny little things like this aren’t going to be taught to you, it’s something that you will have to find out on your own. Some interesting journalism facts:
- First paragraphs are never indented
- In the Canadian Press Style Book time is always a.m. or p.m.
- Unsigned editorials are staple of newspapers
- Libel is something you should be afraid of and know a lot about
- If the quote ain’t right don’t quote
For more on this be sure take a read of the Pew Institute’s list of the principals of journalism. As well, be sure to read every newspaper and website you can find related to journalism in your city. Imitations is the sincerest form of flattery, especially if you’re imitating the best.
Be prepared for interviews
Some quick pointers on what not to do during an interview (mostly from personal experience):
- Prepare for an interview by reading other stories on the interview subject. Your stomach will sink if they realize you’re unprepared or unread on their thoughts.
- Really listen in on what the interview subject is saying and compare that to your notes. This will help you in asking followup questions that delve deeper into the interview.
- Do not rush into questions. You have this person in your grasp for about fifteen minutes meaning you can ask another question while your brain works on phrasing your ace in the hole for the next one.
- Build a relationship with your interview subject, but do none of the following: hug, ask for an autograph, say, ‘I’m glad that’s over with’, forget to say thank you, or let them pay for a lunch.
There is honestly more to this section than anything I can write. Interviews are the bread and butter of journalism, but they require a great deal of care. First of all, you should know what you’re getting into before making the call. As well, always make the call and use an email as a last resort. Speaking with someone over the phone is much more gripping than corresponding over email.
As well, be sure you know your ethics before engaging in anything. Never let an interview subject pay for your lunch, so always go dutch. Also don’t be afraid of stopping them to ask another question. Sometimes interview subjects can go on and on for minutes about something off-topic.
Last piece of advice, invest in an audio recorder. Using your cellphone is great and I do all of the time, but it makes everything seem a lot more serious if you have a beefy voice recorder. It makes you feel more confident and helps them feel assured you are a professional.
Let your passions guide you to others
Hey, as a journalist you can write about anything you want… save a few subjects the NSA might be watching out for online. Don’t be afraid to go with your instincts and write about what you want to; however, always be sure that there’s something in it for you. It sounds selfish, but you always have to look out for your career and what people are reading online.
As a journalist, you can take that passion for video games, pop culture, and comic books and let is lead you in the direction of a group of other people who love the same things. As a writer, you are much stronger if there are people behind you instead of being a lone wolf on the Internet… like me, oh god I’m so lonely.
Anyway, get out there and explore your city for people who write just like you. Guaranteed there is everything from a Facebook group to a community centre who have programs that can help you out as a journalist to find a niche and expand your horizons.