There’s no substitute for the real thing. No matter where you go to J-school or how many internships you do, your first journalism job will be a learning experience.
Sorry, but your education doesn’t stop at the university wall.
It’s been more than two years since I abandoned the comforts of college for a newsroom cubicle, and over that time I’ve collected a hodge-podge of observations and tips I could have used coming out. Here’s what I learned in the real world.
Reading keeps you sharp
Maybe I’m a bit of a journalism geek, but one of my biggest shocks entering the real world was seeing how little my colleagues actually talked about journalism.
I always relished the classroom discussion of ethics and trends, but at my small newspaper of overworked reporters and editors, it seemed like all anybody wanted to talk about was who forgot to fill out the weekend budget.
So, I began reading – other newspapers, of course, but also books by journalists, books about journalism.
The effects were obvious, but noteworthy in their immediacy: Reading made me more informed and improved my writing.
Today, I make it a point to read two or three books a month. It’s worth it.
Find a mentor, anywhere
I was blessed to have great teachers throughout my internships and college.
Perhaps natively, I expected I’d view them as colleagues once I entered the pro ranks, but I found I needed them more than ever.
Your first job often is a step down from your last internship, which can mean dealing with some unimaginative assignments or frustrating editors.
Having someone to look to for guidance when I wasn’t getting it from the bosses has been crucial.
Find an ally in the newsroom
If you’re lucky enough to find a mentor in your newsroom, congratulations.
But I’ve found in the small markets where you’re likely to start out, there probably won’t be a person with enough experience or the right personality suitable for a mentor.
So look for another reporter or an editor you can talk to about newsroom politics.
If there’s one area you enter the world of work totally unprepared for, it’s that one: unrealistic expectations, backbiting reporters and schizophrenic editors.
You’re going to need somebody to walk with as you navigate the hazardous landscape of your own newsroom.
I recommend an editor, but not your own.
That way you get someone with insight into what’s going on above you but removed enough from your own experiences to offer some real advice.
Become a joiner
If you’re reading this, you’re already off to a good start: you’re a member of SPJ.
Journalism groups, and the conventions they host, are vital to keeping you up to date with what’s going on in the industry (especially if your colleagues are disengaged) and for networking for future jobs.
But don’t just stop with SPJ. Get involved with specialized journalism organizations as well.
My passion is investigative reporting, so I’m a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, but there are all sorts of journalism groups out there. Interested in business writing? Join the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
Like health care reporting? Try the Association of Health Care Journalists.
Stay hungry – and humble
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that journalism is a marathon, not a sprint.
You’re going to have tough days, weeks and months. You’re also going to have some pretty lame assignments.
Don’t let that get you down, and don’t act holier-than-thou.
Stay focused on your goals and remember: It’ll all pay off. I’m counting on it.
Brian Joseph is a reporter for The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, Calif., a member of the SPJ Journalism Education Committee and a 2002 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. He received a 2003 George Polk Award for an investigative series he co-wrote as an intern at The Seattle Times.