A mentor can be invaluable for a reporter starting out. I can attest that first job is much different from any college paper or internship.
All of a sudden you are expected to come up with many of your own story ideas, set your own schedule, find and cultivate your own sources and, of course, stay ahead of the competition. Plus, you have to balance that with the stress of paying the bills and adjusting to a new home.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed – I didn’t have much competition at my first job, and I still felt like I was constantly plugging holes in a sinking ship.
The important thing to remember is you are not alone in the newsroom. Most new reporters go through the same stressful transition from college to full-time work. You need someone to bounce ideas off, to offer perspective about the area and to guide you until you can go it alone.
Sometimes it is a person you know is available when you have a problem. A friend and former colleague put it best. She called her mentor, her college newspaper adviser, a person that would just listen to her.
“I guess the big thing is the whole faith thing,” she said. “Knowing that someone, (who is) not obligated to you because she gave birth to you or fathered you, really believes that you can accomplish something great makes me want to challenge myself and prove that I can.”
In some newsrooms, you will work with a reporter or editor who has been around for a while. It is more difficult at small newspapers, where turnover is high. But many times the editors are former reporters who chose to be promoted instead of leave. It is to your advantage to become friends with them. They can help you learn the business, both inside and out of the newsroom. They will undoubtedly know the important people in the community you will need to befriend.
An experienced reporter also can help you improve your writing. It can be as simple as talking over lunch or a drink at the bar. You will need someone to listen when you need to vent, to answer when you have a million questions – someone to tell you the world is not ending when you write your first correction or answer that first angry phone call.
I did not find my mentor until my second job. I had many friends who showed me the way, but my mentor helped me understand what it meant to be a reporter and discover my writing style. He was my boss, but not afraid to listen and talk about problems or ideas. He offered advice on potentially good sources. He wasn’t afraid to let me write a story in a different way. He told me when something didn’t work but never scolded me for trying.
An editor who has mentored several others told me a good mentor will encourage young reporters to try different writing styles or stretch beyond the usual news stories. He said a mentor should emphasize the positive but still offer constructive criticism.
Be enthusiastic, but do not overwhelm your mentor. Remember, that person also has a job and cannot spend all his/her time helping you. That person should walk with you, not carry you. And in the end, you will be a better, stronger reporter because of it.
Derrick Gingery, 28, is a reporter at the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Ill. He has been a professional reporter for six years. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.