By David Sheets | January 29th, 2012
The moment I thought “journalism” had died and I missed it came before speaking to a college class.
“Oh no, this isn’t a journalism class,” the professor told me moments before I stepped into the lecture hall. “This is media communications.”
“Not the same thing?” I asked. “I thought I was here to address journalism students.”
“Well, yes,” the professor said. “And no. Which is why I invited you.”
Confused, I asked for clarification, which she gave: “Journalism is incorporated in all we do; it’s an element in all we teach. But journalism by itself, we don’t do that anymore.”
And my job here this day?
“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” the professor said, sounding apologetic. “I was hoping you could explain what journalists like yourself do in your day-to-day routine — tell them how the theory comes into practice.”
This sounded simple enough. Problem was, the majority of the 45 students awaiting my sage instruction were seniors about a month away from sporting mortarboards. In my own college time, the “theory” we were supposed to learn came into practice almost immediately after freshman orientation. We all knew going in how to type on IBM Selectrics and use notepads, the professors presumed back then. Thus, their chief task was showing us how make something of the space between our ears, the most valuable news-gathering tool we had.
I doubted that anything I had to say to those 45 students would help them get a foot in a door at that point. Yes, they were savvy with networking and gadgetry. And yes, they probably knew how to knead an idea in as many ways as the prefix “multi” in multimedia allowed. But how much theory can anyone reasonably grasp when their eyes are focused on the space below the exit sign?
The key then, I believed, was offering the students less theory and more practicality. I didn’t know how much of the latter their in-class lessons provided. From my experience, the lessons I learned outside class were the ones still rooted in my mind. So, I opted to pass along some of the same tried and tested tips that no text or learned lecturer had awarded me at their age. If even a few students caught a clue, I figured, they’d be better prepared than a lot of their peers.
Among my hard-earned pearls of experience:
Read. Everything — We tend to reach first for whatever we like to read, not what we ought to read. Delving into assorted writing styles expands one’s mind for using words. It’s said that the best way to become a good writer is to first become a good reader, because you have to know and understand how words work before trying to make use of them.
Research. Everything — The habit today is to sift Wikipedia or the first couple of pages of a Google search for key sources, when the truth is that both of those venues are suspect. Wikipedia is vulnerable to prejudiced editing, while Google permits paid placement to influence its search listings. Real research — probing everything from pamphlets to databases and interviewing assorted subjects — takes time and effort, and is perhaps the hardest thing about being a credible journalist. Get comfortable with such sites as PACER and Pipl and Portico, and learn how to conduct advanced searches on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Listen. To everything — Rare is the interview when the subject gets to the point right away. Journalists may have to sit through speeches, musings, even homespun tales before the golden detail they seek rings clear. That’s fine — just listen. Chances are that other important information can be culled from what sources are trying to say.
Develop a strategy — Don’t go blindly into a topic hoping a story will somehow magically appear in completed form on your computer or tablet screen. In advance of pursuing a story idea, figure out how best to go about that pursuit. In other words, have a plan of action before taking the first note or conducting the first interview.
Develop living, breathing sources — The trend toward news aggregation is fine for those happy with merely repeating other people’s ideas. But for the rest of us intent on generating original content, it pays to talk with reliable experts, witnesses and trained observers to discover first-hand information, no matter who they are. And after that, it pays dividends to stay in touch and keep abreast of what they’re doing, find out what they’re seeing. Who knows: these once-used sources could provide insight to other story ideas later.
Ignore titles — Along this line, avoid depending too much on people with big or impressive titles. I struggled mightily in my first weeks of reporting by thinking the titled types possessed all the salient details when it was everyone below them — administrative assistants, clerks, servants, etc. — who had this information. I realized then that executives only make decisions; subordinates are the ones who make those decisions happen, and by extension know where all the signed documents are stashed.
Be skeptical — The saying among my college professors was, “If your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.” The point: Never take others’ word as gospel, for they may have less information than you. Furthermore, there are people out there whose job it is to mislead journalists. Don’t make it easier for them to do their job by trusting what they say.
Be compassionate, to a point — Understand that everyone has an opinion and the interview may be where the subject feels a need to express it. Let people vent, if it puts them at ease, but avoid getting drawn into an agenda.
Talk it over — It helps to talk about your stories with colleagues to get their input, though the solitary nature of freelancing can make that difficult. For journalists going it alone, professional organizations such as SPJ, the Online News Association and the American Copy Editors Society offer venues for discussion, as do the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Freelance Success and Freelancers Union.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.