When Chelsea Keenan, a business reporter for The Gazette and Source Media, graduated from college in 2010, it was a cold, hard environment for college graduates in the shrinking communications-media world.
She was one of three journalists who shared some time this morning with my Introduction to Journalism class, and she noted that she filled in the gaps before employment with some internships, including one at NPR. There, she was placed on the business desk, a beat she had never considered covering.
For her, finding the right niche, one she was not aiming at, and leveraging it with internships allowed her to enter the working world of journalism.
It’s a point I often make with students—the importance of beyond-the-class experience, both with student media and with internships. “I think I did about five internships,” she said. In other words, students, you have to get out there and hunt down the opportunities to gain experience.
And don’t be surprised if you end up doing something that you didn’t consider on the way to doing what you really want to.
For instance, Diana Nollen, a more familiar name to me as a Gazette reader, writes about arts and entertainment, which she says is her “dream job.” But, on the way to that dream job, she worked on all kinds of other beats and had various editing roles.
She said she’s been in her dream job for three years. “I had a 30-year career to get to that dream job,” Nollen noted. As she said, students, don’t expect to land your “perfect” job as your first.
And yes, even if you didn’t expect to write about it, you might end up doing something surprising, like covering business, something Keenan said she wasn’t keen on while she was in school.
Which promoted Nollen to state something in almost exactly the same words that I’ve used with students: “A reporter can cover anything.”
My first job way back in the 1980s was as a sports editor, which was ironic because I had studiously avoided athletics and athletes when I was growing up. I think it was a very minor regret of my dad’s—he had a passive interest in football, for example, and would have preferred to share that interest with his son. To his credit, he didn’t push me, and I ended up a high school star of the debate team.
Anyway, I got that sports gig because I had covered sports as a part-time writer for “The Quad City Times” while I was in college. I got out of sports as quickly as I could, but it was still valuable to me as the first rung in a media career ladder.
And so it goes. Zack Kucharski, senior manager of newsroom operations for both the Gazette and KCRG-TV, noted that he has expected to write three stories one summer for a Gazette internship, when a reporter suddenly left. “And I wrote three stories a day,” he says.
My class had an interesting tour of the joint news operations of The Gazette and KCRG. The tour always sparks interesting discussions in class. And it’s always nice to hear the messages that I’ve stated so often to students coming out of the mouths of those working in today’s media.
Other points made in our brief session this morning:
- Have 10 questions ready for every interview. That is a piece of advice Nollen said she learned in a high school journalism class. I haven’t used that number before, and I will in the future—but having lots of questions at the ready is an important basic that I have mentioned, as is listening to answers and adjusting the interview rather than sticking to your script, which is, based on the anecdotes she shared, something I think Nollen would also agree with.
- Go there. It’s OK, in fact it’s normal, to speak with sources on the phone, but you get better interviews, more information and thus better journalism, if you can be physically with the source in his or her environment. Kucharski noted how important it is to watch and be sensitive to a source’s reaction, his or her nonverbal communication—something that is hard to do over the phone.
- Take notes. Use technology, but be ready for it to fail. You may not pick up the sounds you think you did, your digital device can fill with data, and—they didn’t make this point, but I’ve added it to the list in classroom discussions—good notes make it a lot easier for you to deal with and understand the recording so you don’t have to listen to the whole thing over and over as you’re trying to write.
Even in this digital age, the digits that have flesh and bone are often the most useful to journalists—take notes.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the tour. Thank you, Zack, Diana and Chelsea for your words of wisdom. Thank you, Zack, for arranging and hosting the informative tour. And thanks to all the other Source Media people who were so helpful and kind to us—even the bald lab rat who was doing everyone else’s laundry.
We had a blast. I hope you enjoyed it, too.