In September of 2014, I moved from Portland, Oregon, to a small, rural town in Washington state.
Why give up the Rose City for the boondocks? With all its hipster charm, Portland was a great place to live – but a hard place to make a living. So, after nine jobless months, when I was offered a reporting job, I took it.
I packed up a Penske truck and left Portland to find myself in an unknown city, a new state and smack dab in the middle of a profession I knew nothing about.
I majored in journalism, but aside from my college coursework and a very abbreviated stint at my college’s student paper, my knowledge of the news industry was zilch. But I was excited about working at my first “real job” and the prospect of proving my chops.
I ended up working at the paper for almost two years. I learned a lot. I was a cops and courts reporter, covered the local school boards, and occasionally city council and county commissioner meetings along the way.
The experience taught me a good deal about the day-to-day of a small, local newspaper and how to navigate a professional workplace. I’m happy I got the opportunity, but there are many things I wish I had known beforehand.
In the college journalism classes I took, there was much emphasis on the inverted-pyramid style, where and how to insert quotes, proper attribution, etc. The bulk of what I learned dealt with the technical aspects of a story and how to write journalistically.
That’s all good stuff to know, but these lectures failed to acquaint me with a lot of what I faced head-on in the newsroom. Here’s what I think aspiring journalists should know before they accept their first job offer.
City government, city government, city government
Unless you’re a Gay Talese-esque prodigy, your first reporting gig likely will be at a small newspaper. Could be a daily, could be a weekly. It might be a publication that runs once or twice a month.
Small papers are under financial duress, have a skeleton-crew staff and are doing their best to find content to fill papers. This means, in addition to general-assignment stories such as writing about the county fair, you’ll be asked to cover city councils, county boards and school boards.
Sitting with a pen and paper at the city chambers can be interesting and exciting. You’re given the opportunity to be close to, and engage with, the inner workings and people who run your city.
But it can also be tedious and time-consuming. If there’s no scandalous behavior taking place, you’ll be keeping an eye on new hires, local ordinances, public-comment sessions and the budget. And that last one is the biggest deal.
You’ll be the eyes and ears of the public, having to take note of where local money is going and why it’s being spent. Oftentimes you’ll be the only citizen at these meetings.
This means you need to acquaint yourself with budgets in general; do you know what it means to be in the black as opposed to the red? Do you know what a block grant is? Does “maintenance and operations levy” mean anything to you?
An editor, hopefully, will give you a Reader’s Digest explanation of these items before you head to an event, but ultimately, it’s your job to know how local governments work.
I was required to attend only one school board meeting during my time as a journalism major. I wish I had gone to more.
A basic knowledge of local politics will save you a lot of time and worry. And if you don’t understand something, ask. If you’re friendly and honest about being green, local officials will be happy to help. After all, they’d rather have you get it right.
Go to a city council meeting on a night you’re free. Look at the agenda. Ask yourself if you can follow what’s going on and what are the biggest issues being discussed.
You’ll do more editing than writing right away
You’ll put together short stories based on press releases your first couple of weeks on the job. And you’ll be responsible for rewriting releases from anyone from the State Patrol to the local animal shelter.
In these scenarios, you’re given a jumbled piece of prose and asked to restructure it to abide by journalistic form. This means scanning the release and finding the most important piece of information, crafting a lead and deciding what can afford to be omitted.
It doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re not used to rewriting stories it can be difficult. It’s not uncommon to turn 800 words into 100. Another pro tip: Know what column inches are. Your editor won’t ask for 300 words, but for 10 column inches.
If you don’t grouse about having to do these re-writes, and you do them well, your editor will take note. Keep in mind, too, that however inconsequential a story seems to you, it could mean a lot to readers.
You’ll work late, and you’ll work a lot
I was one of only two reporters at the paper. That meant that my colleague and I did a lot of work.
If there was a fire at 10 p.m. on a Friday, one of us was expected to be there. When the city council was going to finalize some important business on a Tuesday evening, we’d need to have a reporter at the meeting.
When the region experienced severe flooding in 2015, my editor called me at 6 in the morning, asking me to survey the damage as soon as I got off the phone with him. I spent many weekends covering that flood, too, chronicling volunteer efforts throughout the county.
And, if you’ve gotta meet deadline, you’ve gotta meet deadline. No questions asked. I would go to a school board meeting at 7 p.m., leave around 9:30 and then stay at the office until close to midnight writing my story for next-day publication.
Maybe this isn’t news to you. Reporters work late. But what you need to consider is that crafting a news story is usually more nuanced than just slamming away at your keyboard for an hour. Things can go wrong, and tense environments can pop up out of nowhere.
For example: You go the city-council meeting, you ask council members questions afterwards and you feel confident you’ve got what you need. You head back to the office and look over you notes, but you quickly encounter a problem: Did the council president tell you that new piece of equipment was going to cost the city $500 or $5,000? You can’t read what you’ve scrawled on your notepad. Can’t get that wrong, either. Better hope she answers her cell phone at 10 p.m.
It’s also not uncommon for reporters to get phone calls from an editor late at night before a paper goes to print. “Hey, Jake. I’m looking at your story on the county auditor right now. You’ve spelled her name two different ways. Which one is right?”
In a way, you’re always on the clock, even though your paycheck doesn’t reflect that.
Want to take a weekend vacation? Better get it OK’d by your editor first. Thinking about having some beers on Friday night? You’ll have to be in good enough shape to drive if your editor wants you to.
You’ll find yourself in uncomfortable positions
You’ll get a chance to cover cops and courts if you work at a small enough paper. I went to the county courthouse every Monday to watch felony arraignments (Know what this means?) and sentencings. I also covered a couple murder trials.
You’ll go to car accidents and be asked to chase down shenanigans heard over the police scanner. I bet a lot of young reporters can’t wait to get their hands on a juicy, complex murder case, or an exciting high-speed chase.
But finding yourself in the middle of these scenarios is less glamorous than it’s made out to be.
Be prepared to call the loved ones of a family member who has just died in a wreck, or been sentenced to life in prison. Your editor might want you to do it the day of, too. These conversations are painful and extremely awkward. And it makes you look like an intrusive asshole.
Family and friends of defendants will curse you out and glare at you when you sit in the jury box with your notebook. Lawyers will give you an irritated look when you ask them about their client’s rape case; or, they won’t give you the time of day.
You will have relatives of accused sex offenders, devastated and embarrassed by the charges filed against their family members, call you and demand you take back what you wrote about their case. You will read charging papers that detail graphic sexual misconduct and behavior, and then be chastised for writing about something so grotesque.
After covering a murder trial that ultimately convicted a teenager of fatally beating his newborn baby with a ratchet, the defendant’s dad came up to me outside of the courthouse in tears. “He’s a good kid,” he said. “I want you to know he’s a good kid.” What do you say to that?
If you can’t build effective relationships, you’ll struggle
Being a reporter can be difficult for shy people. You are constantly talking to strangers and asking them to divulge information they wouldn’t tell anyone else.
During the day-to-day, you’ll work with a core group of sources. These will vary depending on what your beat is, but at a small daily you’ll probably know the local police chief, fire chief, mayor and city council members pretty well.
It’s important to make nice with your “core group” quickly, especially if you’re new in town. Officials in local government have worked with many reporters over the years and know the drill. And if they’re good at what they do, they’ll realize the importance of a strong relationship with the media.
An editor should facilitate introductions and make it known that you’re the new reporter. After that, it’s on you to maintain these relationships.
Make clear right away that you want the relationship to be symbiotic. Don’t make it look like you’re hoping to unearth corruption at the police station within your first month. Tell local officials that you’re pleased to meet them and excited to work together.
The interpersonal piece is big. If you don’t hit it off with a source, he or she will have no qualms about sending the press release to the radio station instead of the paper and deliberately taking your name off the listserv.
You can build trust and respect with sources by writing accurate stories. Spell names right. Don’t be sensational for the sake of being sensational. And double check facts before sending a story to your editor.
The cliché is something like: It’s better to be a nuisance today than wrong tomorrow. Make two or three phone calls if you need to. Just make sure you get it right.
You might find yourself playing some unconventional social roles at a small daily, too. At the paper I worked at, on top of my regular reporting duties, I was asked to complete a “Man On The Street” assignment each week.
This entailed me walking around town (usually on the weekends) and asking a “question of the week” to strangers. After I got their answer, I’d take their picture to go along with their reply.
Oftentimes I would unsuccessfully approach 10 or 15 people before I got my four answers. A lot of people thought I was a weirdo; they’d ask to see my press badge and wonder why I cared what their favorite local restaurant was.
This kind of work can be exhausting, and disappointing for the journalist who wants a hard story. But, oddly enough, that section was one of the most read in the paper. People loved it.
You’ll meet a lot of different people working at a newspaper and find yourself in situations you’d likely never experience otherwise. Reporters should be ready and willing to step outside of their comfort zone.
If I would’ve known more about what I was getting into before I took the job, I would’ve done a better job as a reporter. And the experience would’ve been easier on me.
You need to know a little about a lot as a local journalist. You’ll write about anything and everything, from dog shows to armed standoffs. Writing in AP Style, using the inverted pyramid and properly attributing sources is important, but it’s more significant to understand what you’ll be asked to cover and what that can entail.
Go to city-council meetings. Sit in on felony trials. Call a county commissioner and see if you can get a tour of the courthouse.
Keep in mind how important the interpersonal aspect of a reporting job will be. You need to be able to step outside of your comfort zone and be self-assured while acting as a gadfly.
Writing for a newspaper is a difficult job, but it’s great professional experience. You learn a lot about people and the communities you cover.
This article isn’t meant to discourage, but rather shed some light on items that I don’t think get enough play in reporting classes. If you’re passionate about journalism, you’ll enjoy most newspaper gigs.
And as long as you spell names right, you’ll be OK.
Jake Schild is a content strategist for a global language translation and interpreting company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He majored in journalism and worked as a cops and courts reporter at a local newspaper shortly after graduating from college. The views expressed in this story are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Quill or the Society of Professional Journalists.