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The six-month school of small-town journalism

About halfway through November, I finished six months at my first job after college, and the first job in my field. Here’s what my first six months of news reporting taught me:

1. Sunshine laws. There are lots of things government entities can’t do in their meetings… for instance, they can’t hold impromptu meetings, except if a dire situation demands it and only then after notifying all the local media. And any quorum of a government body in the same place, discussing business, constitutes a meeting—so elected officials can’t get out of this by getting together for morning coffee and accidentally talking about what-have-you. There’s a whole book on the open meeting and public records laws—and the state will send it to you free, if you want to learn about them.

2. Local government operations. I had no idea before I took this job how many branches there were of just a small city government—how many subcommittees a city council has, for instance. I’d only been to a couple city council meetings before, so I didn’t know what a city council was even supposed to do. Nor did I know much about state budgeting or how that affected the local governments. And I definitely had no idea why a city board of health was established. Do you?

3. Schools. Just being in a classroom doesn’t make anyone an expert on schools. I’ve learned more than I thought possible about state and federal hoops that schools have to jump through, just because I’ve been covering a couple local school boards. And I’ve learned about the extra work that comes with state and federal grant funds. School administrators speak a lingo all their own that’s taken me months to understand, too—stuff like IEPs and House Bill pick-a-number. I’m still deciphering some of it.

4. Contact info. I’ve learned to save every business card I’ve ever touched—the oddest was when I needed the cemetery manager’s phone number—and to write down the name and number of everyone I’ve ever called, even the random woman connected to a military moms’ support group. I’ve also learned that most people’s e-mail signatures contain all the contact info you could ever need. Once I’ve got e-mails, business cards and scraps of paper with lots of names and phone numbers, I enter the info into the computerized address book—which is searchable. “Searchable” is music to my ears when I want some bit of information instantly.

5. Organization. The notes I now deal with are way more voluminous and complicated than anything I ever wrote in college. So, I’ve learned to stay on top of my filing, putting all my notes for a story with that story and all my related stories in their file and all the related files (local government, local organizations, county stuff) in their respective hanging folders in the file drawer. If I don’t do it quickly, it’ll overwhelm me! And I label every CD I use as soon as it leaves the disk drive, even if I plan to throw it away. I label with information as detailed as will possibly fit on a CD face; I can’t have umpteen disks lying around that all say “photos.” All my story ideas are kept on index cards in a green box so I don’t lose track of them, too.

6. Practical clothing. I was once sent to a firefighting simulation site wearing flip-flops and went slipping around in the fine gravel. Since then I’ve either worn durable shoes or kept a pair in the car. I never know if I’ll get sent out to some site piled with dirt or debris—I can’t be wearing pretty heels then. I also dress in layers—especially blazers—so I can get comfortable whether I’m outside in the freezing cold (or sweltering heat, in the summer) or inside where the temperature’s drastically different.

7. Attitude. The kind of story I get out of an interview or event depends greatly on the attitude I take toward it. If I go to a meeting that I assume will be boring, the story I write will be boring. If I think the photo op I’m sent to is ho-hum, I’ll get a decent photo with an uninteresting cutline (caption), not the full story that’s lurking beneath the annual potluck announcement. If I enjoy the topic I’m writing about, I’ll pay attention, ask more questions and be able to write a better story.

8. Integrity. I’ve learned I should just be honest with people, no sugarcoating, no empty promises. To say the same thing to people who want opposite answers, and to admit flat out that I just don’t know. It’s simple, but not easy—for example, sometimes I forget what I’ve told people I’d do for them, like drop off a few extra copies of a newspaper, and that becomes an empty promise. So I try to make up for where I’ve fallen short. And in a small town, that makes a huge difference. People will let each other know who’s trustworthy and who’s not.

9. How to improve. Just doing journalism has taught me a lot, sure, but I learn even more when I take the time to read good books about writing and to read good newswriting. When I read one of my favorite newsmagazines, I study what made a given article so interesting or so authoritative. After I notice those things, I imitate them. Humility is a must here—the guts to admit you don’t have everything perfect.

10. Humanity. City managers, state senators, chamber presidents and school superintendents are people, no more, no less—just like me. They’re not to be feared nor stereotyped, but rather deserve to be treated decently. After all, they can appreciate a joke and make a mistake as easily as I can. And they might be just as intimidated by the journalist as the journalist is by them.

I’ve been at this job a whopping six months. There’s plenty more to learn, and I look forward to the next half a year’s education.


mafia said…
Sarah said…
I'm working on a post about all the stuff I'm really glad I learned in college, too. Like Quark, or Photoshop...

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