The 15 best lessons I learned as a cub reporter who didn’t go to j-school

At 27 I landed my first reporting gig. Before being hired I had not once considered becoming a reporter. A writer, most definitely, but a reporter? The idea was nowhere in my possible universes.

In college I majored in International Relations. Some years later, when I sent my resume to a small online news start up, I was hoping to freelance a story or two. I had just spent the winter applying for MFA programs in fiction writing. All 10 schools rejected me. And on the afternoon of my last rejection, I got a call: Was I available for an interview with the news site?

Six weeks later I moved to Anchorage, Alaska, for a job with what was then Alaska Dispatch. I was hired on as a news assistant, promoted to a reporter seven months later.

The learning curve was steep. Suddenly I was cold calling families of murder victims. The first big story I broke was about the suicide of an infamous Alaska serial killer. My work was featured on national television, even as I secretly suffered from a deep and invasive sense of imposter syndrome.

I bent myself to the demanding pace of the newsroom. Daily turns five days a week. Often 12 hours a day, those first few years.

The pressure almost got to me. For a good 30 months I lived in a sea of anxiety, consumed in the work, the ramifications, the chances for error, the mistakes and mediocre copy.

I did a lot of good work, too. I saw my stories change the conversation. I triumphed in ways, both professionally and personally, that I didn’t know were possible.

I never thought I’d go to journalism school, but I most definitely did, in my own way.

For those reporters just starting out, I want to share what’s worked for me and where I’ve failed. Here are my 15 best lessons.

Six years of notes from the field.
Six years of notes from the field.

Ask all of the questions

As a cub reporter, seek out as much advice as you can. Find the editors and mentors willing to help you grow. Ask what they would do in your situation, or for help in framing a story. I’ve had the benefit of so many great and varied mentors. I couldn’t be here without them.

Go to press clubs and conferences. Seek out articles on reporting, and books written by reporters, too, if you have the brain space to think more about journalism when you go home (if not: don’t worry. you are also allowed to relax).

If you are talking to a source and don’t understand their jargon, it’s ok to say: “Sorry, I’m not very familiar with this field – can you explain that?” You are going to learn a LOT on background for the rest of your journalism career.

Embrace the fear

You will encounter situations that frighten you. My first few weeks on the job, I was sent to an active shooter scene in a rundown motel. Police ran back and forth. I had to convince an officer I was media. I was terrified. I called a veteran reporter. She told me to look for witnesses, people hanging around nearby. So I did. And they talked. And police talked. And I had my story. Use your fear. Let it push you outside of your comfort zone. Whatever you do, don’t shrink away.

Dress for anything

Didn’t think you’d be spending the morning standing in the cold as police make a big drug bust? Surprise! I hope you are wearing comfortable shoes and sufficient clothing. No slippery ballet flats, or flip flops you can’t walk a mile in, or shorts when you should be wearing a scarf instead. I keep spare clothes, coats and boots in my car. Some people even keep go bags – enough gear for an emergency overnight – at their desks. You never know.

Master the art of the five minute interview

Maybe a congressional leader is calling you back between meetings, or perhaps you’re at a search and rescue site and the person in charge has only a few minutes to spare. Be prepared. Come armed with as many good questions as possible. Record the conversation, listen closely, and ask for pertinent details.

Push to ask another question (but respect people’s low patience, especially in emergency situations). Sometimes five minutes is the only chance you have for a quote, but sometimes it’s all you need.

Play the long game

Is a source away on vacation for three months? Mark your calendar to give them a call. A story lead didn’t pan out but maybe it will come summertime? Write it down. Don’t give up on a story because it isn’t immediate. For one story (about a man who jerry-rigged a spinning club house 75 feet in the air), almost two years passed between when I started pursuing it to when it was written. Unable to find a phone number, I went to his house and left a note on his door. When he returned from his travels some months later, he called me.

Spell out people’s names

Misspelling someone’s name is one of the easiest avoidable ways to annoy a source and look like an amateur. John Smith or Jon Smyth? Ask your source to spell his or her name, and read it back to make sure you have it right. Making a correction on a name is so easy to avoid. It’s so worth the 20 seconds.

In the same vein: double check your proper nouns. Google places and events. Get the name right.

Background check your sources

Had an awesome talk with a source? Great. Now background check them. Are they involved in pending litigation? Have they been interviewed in the media before? What’s their job history?

Early on in my career, I interviewed a person starting a new business. The person seemed intelligent and kind. I felt secure in the source, and I failed in my due diligence. When the story came out, I received a torrent of emails. The person was on trial for some very serious assault charges (they were later acquitted). Had I done my work properly, I would not have written that story.

Now, I live by this phrase: Trust, but verify.

Knowing your sources helps you avoid potential conflict and gives you insight into their motives. Because:

Everyone has a motive

Why is it that one person helps rescue injured animals, while another spends time championing political causes? When someone calls you up to pitch a story, what are they hoping will happen? Everyone has a driving force, a motive for their actions. A man once pitched me a story on a family he felt was unfairly being evicted. After a while he revealed that he himself used to work at an electric company and would turn off the power in people’s homes when they couldn’t pay. His driving force was regret.

Ask questions that will get at the motive. It can also help you sniff out potentially dangerous leads that may be set up to only do harm to another person.

Take care of yourself

Long, strenuous days are part of the job. Your body won’t be able to sustain all the bad habits you picked up in your youth. You’ll need water, and real food, and real sleep. Real relationships. Physical movement. That way, when you need to give your all, you don’t collapse. Your brain is a part of your body. And since you need your brain more than ever in this job, treat your body with respect.

Technology is your friend, but …

A million stories can be found on the internet. Scientific and government reports, personal blogs, Twitter, event listings, digital archives … but being chained to your computer can also be a curse. Word of mouth still reigns as story king. Why? Because people talk about the things that matter to them. Go into the community. See what’s happening. Introduce yourself. Be ok with attending an event just for background, or chatting up the secretary. Stories are everywhere, and so are potential sources. And bonus, a story found this way is often more unique than the news recycled from press releases, reports and viral videos.

Building contacts takes time

When I first started reporting, I marveled at how contacts would feed story ideas to veteran reporters. “I will never have that,” I thought.

After your first couple hundred stories, though, something changes. People get to know you. You build trust. You call sources repeatedly. And then one day the source calls you first and says: “I’ve got something you might want to hear about …”

You are going to be a jerk

Well, maybe not. But some people will think you are. Hard questions are no fun to ask, or answer, but they are the lifeblood of a reporter. Expect push back. Expect passive aggressive insults, suggestions that you and your questions are stupid, that you’re biased and uniformed. This is a defense mechanism. Keep asking hard questions. And forgive yourself for making a few enemies along the way. It’s part of the job. Insults don’t define your work or who you are as a human.

Trust your gut

If a story makes your stomach turn, or you feel that it isn’t fair, trust your instincts. Ask an editor. Explain your dilemma. Ask for solutions. It’s your name and the repercussions of poorly crafted story fall onto you. Don’t put something out there that you feel causes unnecessary harm, or doesn’t sit well with you ethically.

Write the piece as you report

Contemplate your lede from the very beginning. See the story forming in your head. Pick out the choice quotes during your conversation with a source. Determine some of the most interesting details that you know you want to include. Think about your headline. Keep it in mind as you report and write your piece.

Outlines work great, especially for more complicated and longer pieces. You can always change the order once it’s written.

Reporting is a lifestyle

You will start to see stories everywhere. You will tweak your working draft in your head as you drift off to sleep. Then you’ll revise it the next morning. You’ll build a network of news people, and analyze everything. You’ll have to be careful in your social media ways, and when you are casually hanging with friends, not to disclose something sensitive.

People are going to want to talk to you about your job off-the-clock. Even if you politely change the subject, which I have been known to do, get ready for a lot of questions from family and friends. Because you don’t really get an off-the-clock.

And then there are times you’ll be called in at weird hours to cover breaking stories. Smile through it.

Keep going.

It’s a stressful way to live, but there are benefits, too. Personally, I have become far more outgoing. Now I’m the chatty one at the cash register. I have zero fear of asking questions, and am far more comfortable putting myself in novel social situations. I have worked harder than I ever thought possible, and produced a large body of work in a relatively short time.

I’m tougher now, more cautious and also more carefree. I’m learning what really matters to me, and I let a lot of the smaller issues go. The world opens up to me now in a way that I could never have imagined. It will for you, too.

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