It’s not usually thought of when we use words to describe what it takes to become a better journalist. Typically, we say creative, talented, dedicated and hardworking. I agree with all of them. But if I could pass on only one word, one that should be taped above your computer terminal, it would be “patience.”
It’s a concept lost on too many young journalists who’ve landed their first job out of college. Without patience, it’s easy to get discouraged as you find your way in this business.
We can debate if journalism is a profession, but in my mind, there’s no question that it is a craft. We should approach our job as such. Learning a craft requires
several stages, none of which can be hurried.
A carpenter or electrician learns the basics, then moves into the field where they spend a couple years as an apprentice before becoming a journeyman. If they don’t learn the fundamentals, they risk cutting off a hand or being electrocuted.
At one time, newspapers functioned in that way.
At the top of the hierarchy was the city editor, usually a former reporter who’d made the transition to the desk and dealt with the reporters day to day, sometimes grumbling about it. A rookie reporter showed up at the paper and worked for the city editor who thought in terms of seasoning and letting the reporter know he was no longer in college.
The city editor sent the reporter to cover cops or pull shifts on the night rewrite desk. And he pointed out mistakes — the difference between an automatic and a revolver — and pounded in the mantra to check names and addresses. There could be a 35th Place and a 35th Avenue. The writing itself had to be clear and concise. This wasn’t the time to get carried away.
In time, the reporter moved onto the general assignment pool. He carried with him a sense of accuracy. He wasn’t trying to be a writer, but a reporter — getting the facts right. A few years later, the reporter landed a specialized beat, or carved out a niche within the newsroom with a style of writing or reporting he was known for.
That’s all changed.
When I talk with reporters and editors my age, 50, at other papers, they speak of a generational gap and bemoan that no one wants to pay their dues. Young reporters don’t like working cops or the night beat. A few months on general assignment is enough for them. They want to specialize in projects, or be a feature writer or investigative reporter.
That impatience, in the long run, does not serve them well.
It’s during those years covering cops, or other unglamorous assignments, that the young reporter learns the craft of reporting and writing.
I use “craft” because that’s what it is.
It has to be learned. When you think about it, that’s a wonderful concept. And a great equalizer. It can be learned.
Talent is important. Some reporters and writers may be more naturally gifted. In the long run, the best reporter is not going to be the one with amazing talent and no patience, but one of average talent with the patience to learn and grow.
Walt Harrington, a wonderful writer and thoughtful journalism professor, talks about not wanting to read anything he wrote during his first 10 years in the business.
In my case, I might make it 12 years.
The point Harrington makes, and one worth considering, is that it takes time to evolve and master all the techniques that a writer brings to the story. Harrington, who wrote some amazing stories at The Washington Post Magazine, wouldn’t be the writer he is today if he hadn’t spent those 10 years honing his craft.
Young journalists too often look at writers such as Harrington and fail to realize that they struggled or had doubts. They see only the finished product, and they wonder why they aren’t there yet.
Think of your job in the early years as an apprenticeship. Approach your job as would a craftsman, a cabinetmaker, for example. Discover what tools are in your toolbox and how to use them.
If you cover a small-town city council, practice scene setting and working dialogue into the story.
If you cover a small-town police department, practice your interviewing skills with the cops and stop relying so much on the public information officer.
The point is to practice.
A musician sets aside time each day to work on scales and chord forms, neither of which are as fun as just playing.
The reporter needs to look at each story as a chance to grow.
What knocks so many young reporters off the path is impatience. They get assigned to the police beat, for example, and grumble about it for months instead of seeing what they can learn from the beat.
When I was first assigned to the police beat, I covered the typical car wrecks and shootings. But over time, I started to examine the police world. I met detectives and street cops. It was when I plunged into that world that I got my first sense of story structure because the stories were there in front of me.
The beat had natural good guys and bad guys, along with stories with built-in beginnings and endings. So I started to write them.
I happened to find some of them the other day while cleaning out the basement. That’s what made me think of the Harrington rule. They were not great, some not even good. But as I read them, I saw within them techniques that I use today.
My competitor at the time, a reporter assigned to the police beat for the afternoon paper, was content to grumble about his lousy boss who had sent him to cover cops. His impatience to get out of there blinded him to the possibilities to learn and grow.
Don’t let that happen to you.
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.