This issue of Quill focuses on the career. As you thumb through these pages, you’re going to find all sorts of practical and useful advice that will serve you well in the coming years.
What I’m going to tell you is what I wished someone passed onto me when I was starting out in this business. If I had to reduce 30 years of experience into one sentence, it would be this: No one cares about your career.
Do editors want you to succeed? Certainly. Do the best papers provide opportunities to train and grow? Without question. But how well you do in your career ultimately will depend on how you manage that career.
In every career there comes a moment when you get the chance to prove yourself and take the next step — small as it may seem at the time. If you’re not ready, the chance may not come along again.
People think I got my big break when I was asked by my city editor at the time to report and write a project that ended up winning the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Years later I asked him why he picked me for that assignment. I was 27 years old and had been at the paper only a few years. He told me that he’d read a Sunday feature of mine off the police beat and sensed I was the right reporter for the project, which, at the time it was proposed, I thought was over my head.
I believe there are three distinct eras in a reporting career. You move from elementary school, to middle school and then high school. At each stage there are tests and opportunities.
During the first stage it’s important to write frequently and dabble in all forms: feature, investigative, breaking news. That’s why the best places to start are at small newspapers where you get in the habit of writing, not sitting around dreaming of turning out the big project.
The second stage is where many reporters find themselves stuck. They know how to write, can turn in a solid story or feature. But what’s next? This is when you must start to identify your strengths, play to them and emerge from the pack.
If you’re in this stage of your career, pretend that you’re going for a job interview. Are you drawn to features or enterprise, investigative or beat? Why? What makes you different than another reporter? You better be able to answer, and answer honestly — at least to yourself.
The final stage is when you know yourself and your limitations, and you accept them. You continue to learn, focusing on your strengths. You know what you will never be, but you are sure of what you are. Let’s look at some real examples.
Tara Layne is a reporter at the Goshen News, a 17,000-circulation daily in Goshen, Ind. It’s her first job. Her beat is city government — City Council, Board of Zoning Appeals, Planning Commission, Redevelopment Commission, Park Board and Housing Authority. She writes at least one story a day, sometimes four a day after a council meeting.
“I got feedback in college, but it’s not like feedback from readers,” she says. “If they call with questions, it tells me that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. Maybe I missed something. I go back and look at the story to see what I could have done differently. I’m learning how to write quickly. In college, I might have a couple days. Now the council meeting ends at 11 p.m., and I’m up the next morning writing.”
Each story teaches Layne something about reporting, structuring and writing. She grows because she’s interested and committed to growing. She told me she has no idea what she wants to do next. “I haven’t given it much thought,” she admits. “I’m still learning.”
I found the second example in my own newsroom at The Oregonian. Ryan Frank is a young reporter who knows what he wants to do and why. He’s entering the second stage of his career.
A few weeks ago he wrote an investigative story that had real impact in the city, and it was the latest in a string of his investigative stories. People talked. Editorials were written. Politicians backtracked. It dealt with millions of dollars, the City Council and the lack of oversight involving a major project.
What’s clear is that Frank is an investigative reporter, the newest in a line that has great roots here at the paper.
Frank had been a sports reporter at the University of Oregon. But when his adviser gave him the book All the Presidents Men, he became interested in investigative reporting. He eventually landed a suburban news job at The Oregonian. By his second year at the paper, he knew he wanted to focus on investigative work.
During the next four years, Frank wrote daily stories, but he also sought out in-house mentors, attended investigative reporting conferences and jumped at any chance to write investigative pieces. He didn’t wait for an editor to anoint him as the next generation’s investigation reporter. He worked toward his goal and began playing to his strength. And he knows exactly where he’s headed.
“I can say that the first big investigative story I did started because I got pissed about something I read,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “Two sides of the issue blamed the other, and the last story we wrote didn’t resolve the finger-pointing. It was sort of a big deal, and I wanted to do a bigger story that really told the true story. So I guess I moved toward investigations for the same reason most people do: A desire to truth-squad things beyond the spin people give us for the next day’s paper.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer for The Oregonian. He can be reached at tbhbook@aol.