A reporter once told me he knew everything he needed to know to be a good journalist.
Too bad being a successful journalist isn’t that easy.
Journalism isn’t a science; it’s not a recitation of facts or formulas. It’s an ever-evolving craft that demands that its practitioners step up to the challenges each story offers.
I go to work every day hoping to learn something new or to tackle a story that forces me to use my wits and resources to uncover all the information I can. I think that’s one of the things that makes journalism so fascinating — the idea that our jobs present new challenges and that we can always become better journalists.
With all of the issues facing newsrooms today, training for employees — especially young journalists who need constructive criticism and inspiration — is rarely a priority. Instead, it’s up to young journalists to take the initiative and continue to grow professionally. Here are a few strategies I’ve used to further my journalism education.
Pick a mentor
Most likely there’s a journalist at your newspaper or television station you admire, whether it’s his way with words or her editing style. Find that person you want to emulate and ask them for advice. Take that person to lunch or for an afternoon coffee at Starbucks and tell them you’re looking for advice. Talk about your career goals and ask your mentor how he or she achieved success.
I found my own trusted mentor within a few weeks of arriving at The Indianapolis Star, and he made my transition to my new job much easier. He became someone I could turn to in the newsroom for advice on anything from a lead on a story to finding an apartment. Develop a relationship with a person you admire, and you’ll have an ally in the newsroom.
Use online resources: read, read, read
The Internet is a great thing; I can’t imagine journalism without it. Best of all, it allows us access to a world of newspapers at our desktops. I know professors say it time and time again, but to be a good journalist, you’ve got to read the best journalism. I try to read eight or nine newspapers a day and often save printouts of articles I’ve enjoyed or clever approaches to telling a routine story. I also take time to read my newspaper’s archives, building my knowledge of my coverage area’s history.
Also, there are several good journalism sites that offer plenty of resources. These range from the obvious, such as www.spj.org and www.poynter.org, to www.pulitzer.org, which allows you to read winning articles online dating back to 1995. Many beat-specific journalism organizations also publish “best-of” collections online.
Don’t be afraid to ask
Face it, as young journalists, our bosses are often aware of our ages and experience levels. Confidence is good, but arrogance can be a downfall for any young journalist. Don’t be afraid to step up to your bosses and ask them how they feel about your work. Tell them you want to experiment with a new style of writing or a new multimedia program. Most of all, ask when you need help. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself, but don’t shirk from asking for constructive criticism. Challenge your editors to challenge you to deliver the best journalism possible.
Find the money
Sometimes you have to get away from the daily grind to refresh yourself and become excited about journalism again. A national conference or writing seminar may be just what you need to gain inspiration, but few newsrooms will have the funds to pay for training. Still, that shouldn’t be enough to keep you from a seminar that you think may help advance your career.
Work holidays or volunteer for overtime to save for a conference, or ask for money for a flight and hotel for birthday or holiday presents. Also approach your editors and ask for paid professional development time — tell them you’re willing to pay your own way if they’ll pay for your days off.
In the end, paying your own way to a conference can be pricey — my trip to the SPJ 2005 conference in Las Vegas cost more than $600 — but it will allow you to come back to your newsroom with a fresh perspective, innovative ideas and new networking opportunities.
Being a young journalist can be difficult, especially if you’re working in a newsroom full of veteran reporters. The best thing we can do as young reporters is to strive to maintain that enthusiasm we feel for our work while challenging ourselves to grow every single day.
Rebecca Neal is a reporter at The Indianapolis Star, where she has worked since graduating from the University of Kentucky in May 2005. During her time at The Star, she has covered events such as Hurricane Katrina. She has been an SPJ member since 2002.