After my internship at The Oklahoman this summer, I truly couldn’t agree more.
I didn’t realize how much I needed to improve this summer until I arrived at the Oklahoman, and my copy came under the scrutiny of the editors here.
My first few stories were under par, and I was worried I had failed the editors’ litmus test. As discouraged as I might have been, they kept their faith in me, and in a few weeks, I was pumping out cleaner copy every day.
One of those stories was the one shown on the right. With the patience of Rick Green, the local desk editor here, I turned what was a mind-numbing numbers story into something truly valuable to the reader.
I should say that I had two goals this summer, and I would have been happy with just one of them being accomplished: Either (A): Get good play on the front page, or (B): Have two stories run on the same day.
I guess I set my goals pretty low, because the staff did more than their share to ensure that I got great stories and that they were well-played on the page. For example, in my first week, I had two front page stories.
One was on FEMA’s response to Oklahoma’s tornado damage. The other was this one.
Not only that, but in one edition I claimed the front page CP, and then had a second article teased on the front page as well. That broke both goals I wanted to achieve.
Another time, in yesterday’s edition, August 4, I got CP on the Page 1 AND on the Metro front.
I really can’t believe all the good that has come out of this internship for me.
I’ve made some amazing connections with some extraordinary journalists and interns here.
My writing went from typical fresh-out-of-j-school approach, to a more polished, professional style.
I’m still nowhere close to where I want to be as a storyteller. But give me two more years, and I might just be hirable. *Hint, Hint to any newspaper recruiters reading this*.
I’ve realized since I started my internship this summer that the priorities of journalism schools may be a little off in what they deem important in today’s information market.
Lets get to it.
Writing is still the most important skill for a print journalist
Unless every journalism student in the country is destined to work at a small, local newspaper all their lives, learning photo and video is still secondary to possessing true writing ability. In medium market newspapers like the Oklahoman, writers don’t shoot photos. Photographers don’t write stories (except only once, but he wanted to). They are still institutionalized to separate the tasks of writing copy and producing visuals.
My journalism school may be sticking to that platform more than others, and now I think I finally get why. Writers still need to focus on providing clear and comprehensive copy. They still need to develop editing skills, and be great self-editors. Learning Soundslides, or correct audio mixing techniques or SEO is important, but will always be complementary skills to solid writing.
If anything has really changed in the newsroom I occupy this summer, it’s that they have had layoffs, but little conversion of desks. Specialists are still better than jack-of-all-trades. Bad news for people like me who have bet on the need for one-man bands.
Some skills that students journalists shouldn’t forget about in the digital age
- Producing clean copy: In a recommendation letter I received from a senior staff writer this summer, she only noted one particular skill that I possessed; turning in clean copy. Now, I don’t know how true that may be, but it points out that reporters and editors are still primarily looking for clean writers. Not active bloggers or tweeters. Those are crucial skills too, but the newsroom veterans and copy editors don’t want to be spending hours editing your articles because you were distracted with socializing and blogging.
- Being People People: No matter how lost in indirect communication we may sink our personal lives, reporters still have to knock on doors and meet people in person. No one teaches those skills in journalism school, but student journalists now may forget that is in the job description. Having good conversational skills, earning rapport with your sources and gaining access were all skills a professor last semester impressed upon me. Good words to live by.
- Doing your research: Nothing hurts worse than tweeting and blogging about your next interview with your next great source, but if you don’t focus and get the research done, you won’t be producing all the great pieces your audience will be expecting.
Another disclaimer here: I’m not an expert. I just have a tendency to write about things that strike me and that I learn along my path to becoming a professional journalist.
With that, I think these are some truly fundamental skills that might get pushed to the side by eager journos ready to hit the streets with all their multimedia gear in place and turn on their eight different social media tools to pump out their content.
Deadlines are a haunting and exhilarating piece to a journalist’s life. But many times, deadlines are longer than you need.
Say you are writing a profile on a musician with no time value. You have all week and it’s just Monday. Interview is on Tuesday morning. Then what?
I’ve been dealing with long deadlines lately, and been thinking about how I can be productive while waiting on a call back, or between interviews, besides the traditional fact-checking and organizing of my notes.
Here are a few ideas I have on how to increase productivity in your downtime:
1. Do a daily – Sometimes there are smaller pieces inside your much bigger piece that could stand by itself as a short daily. For example, an event preview, or an off-topic issue inside your bigger story. A lot of these could make a short daily story, or even a sidebar for your main project.
2. Make it multimedia – Get out that camera and shoot a video, and ask your subject to do an on-camera interview. Anything to add pizzazz or pop to your page is a good thing.
3. Pursue a project – Use that half hour between your interviews to look into your next big hit.
4. Learn a trade – If you don’t know how to use Final Cut, or InDesign, now is your chance. Lots of easy, quick tutorials can help you master the basics and get some valuable skills.
The relationships you build with your subjects is at the fulcrum of your success or failure as a storyteller. Teeter the wrong way, and you’ll smack the ground.
I haven’t busted my bottom yet, but I there have been some close calls.
To date, I’ve forgotten to do two simple tasks that might have strained relationships with my subjects; going to an event, and sending a photo.
Of course, it occurred at Picture Kentucky. One of my subjects was a do-it-all man. Literally. He was the county magistrate, taxidermist, funeral director, grave digger and craftsman. My job was to document him in all his roles.
After spending several hours with him, he invited me to come back to an annual festival at his hometown (The Wooly -Worm festival). I quickly accepted. When a few months went by and time came for the event, I was just too bogged down to go.
I had planned to return with some friends and spend the day, but college life and newsrooms don’t allow much free time.
But there are no excuses for breaking promises.
It may not seem like a big deal, but I know Mr. Begle would remember. That’s all it takes. The relationship I built with him and the access I had been granted into his life and community might be severed or compromised for future work on that project.
Think of what could happen if you were a beat reporter, and you didn’t keep a promise to a vital source of information. Your entire job and career in that beat could be compromised.
As journalists, all we have is our name and integrity. Our reputation allows us to perform our job and let the people trust us as a source of accurate and timely information. Don’t go teetering the wrong way.