Once I graduated from J-school, I knew I was ready to move to Southern California and work at the L.A. Times.
Sure enough, I landed my first job, and it’s working for the L.A. Times — in the Community News Division. I’m the news assistant at the Daily Pilot, a 30,000-circulation Times insert in the cities of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
Many people graduate with a similar mindset. It turns out I wasn’t even close to being ready for life at a major metropolitan daily. I’ve since learned that experience at a smaller paper will help you fine tune your writing and reporting skills, as well as provide you with the chance to discover what it is that excites you about this profession.
But I’d be lying if I said there aren’t cons to starting at the bottom and working your way up. The hours are long, and the pay doesn’t prove it. So you have to enjoy what you do. There are also many lessons to learn. Something I’ve had trouble with is taking criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. Learn to take all advice constructively — don’t be defensive.
Act like a sponge and absorb as much as you can from your editors and co-workers, so that when you do move on to a larger circulation paper, you’re ready to take whatever comes your way.
Don’t let yourself get bored. If you’re not feeling challenged enough, and you’re not having fun, it shows in your writing and overall work performance. Keep coming up with story ideas so you always have things to work on and your bosses aren’t finding stuff for you to do.
Also, don’t let yourself get burnt out. Maintain a social life; get out of town whenever you can. Recognize when you need a break or when you need to take it slow.
The first job is full of ups and downs, but if you make it through all the rough days, the responsibilities of being a journalist are rewarding — no matter what kind of story it is you’re telling.
Whether your paper has a circulation of 30,000 or 100,000, that’s thousands of people reading the stories you write. No matter what your tasks are, you are affecting their lives by providing them with useful information and knowledge.
As the news assistant, I’m in charge of calendar listings for every day of the week, transcribing the readers hotline calls, typing wedding announcements, obituaries — basically, everything beat reporters don’t have time to do. However, as a bonus for minding the minutiae, I write three standing features a week: a Q&A with a local senior, an “On the Water” article about anything ocean-related, and a weekly profile of a local volunteer.
So, in a sense I have a beat — it’s the good news.
And it can be a satisfying beat. People are usually more than happy to let me interview them, and sometimes I even get thank-you notes and phone calls for the articles I write. These are the stories that people clip and save for their scrapbooks. They’re the stories that touch a smaller community, not the international news that the average person might read and feel it doesn’t affect them.
Besides, the old cliché holds true: the devil is in the details. It’s just as important to get everything accurate in a calendar listing as it is in an article.
Working at a small paper, you have the opportunity to really get to know a community, to learn how to develop sources and to find your passion in journalism. This is where you discover whether or not it’s your calling.
You might also find that you have more liberties on the stories you write. Take advantage of this and experiment with your writing.
Most community papers tend to be short-staffed, which means you have many chances to prove your hand at breaking news while getting a taste for each beat.
My original plan was to graduate and go straight to the big-city daily, but I now know the experience of working at a community paper is invaluable. And it turns out, I didn’t know everything I needed to right out of college — which is fine. I’m still free to keep learning, asking questions and gaining experience so I can continue becoming a better professional. Eventually, I will be ready to move on to a larger paper, and I look forward to that.
Lindsay Sandham, 24, graduated from Metropolitan State College of Denver in December 2004. She is the news assistant at the Daily Pilot, a 30,000-circulation daily in Costa Mesa, Calif. She has been an SPJ member since September 2003 and is working on starting SPJ activities in Orange County, Calif.