Before I even got into the meat of my journalism-school experience (read: the Spartan Daily, San Jose State University’s student paper), I spouted off a laundry list of advice for journalism students.
But now that j-school is officially behind me, I have a new perspective on that monstrous beast of an experience I just went through. And I’m also being asked for interviews about that perspective.
Dan Reimold called me up from Singapore a few months ago for an interview and just today posted the results. (Thanks, Dan, for making me sound smart!)
Alesa Commedore, an intern at Ourblook.com, did a video Skype interview last week that should appear on the site later on. I’ll let you all know when it’s posted.
And Rachele Kanigel, an instructor at San Francisco State, asked me some questions over e-mail to help update her textbook, The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. I have to say, I wish I knew this book existed before I was interviewed for it.
With her permission, I’m sharing my advice for student journalists at campus publications with you. (I’m only speaking of roles where I’ve had extensive experience — my apologies to the photography and videography students out there. For that, check out the excellent blogs from Mindy McAdams or Mark Luckie.)
- Do not be married to your work. I know you spent a half an hour perfecting one sentence. If it doesn’t work, it will be edited. I know you just spent 8 hours on that infographic. If it doesn’t go with the story, it can’t run. That is the nature of the business. If you can’t deal with it now, don’t go into journalism.
- Work with people, not against. When you’re working with fellow students , you have to be flexible. Everyone is learning.
- Always have a plan B, C, D and a vague idea for a plan E.
- Treat every opportunity like a test for your dream job. What do you want future employers to see? Do that.
- Know your style. Most American schools go off of AP Style. If you haven’t dug into the industry standard stylebook from A to Z yet, get on it. I’m even looking at you, photographers.
- Make sure you have a copy of everything you’ve done when you leave the newspaper. That includes articles, photos, video, Flash projects, headlines, editing (save before-and-after copies of particularly difficult edits), live blogs, live tweets, everything. You never know what kind of job opportunities pop up in the future, and you may want to show them what you can do.
- Get it right. At SJSU, our mass communications building is named Dwight Bentel Hall, and the namesake just turned 100 years old. He had only three bits of advice for our newsroom: Get it right, get it right and get it right.
- Always save your notes. (EDIT: Thanks to the commenters of this post who pointed out that this is bum advice. See below for the reasons.)
- Don’t rely on technology, but do use it if you can. Carry a pad and paper everywhere and always take written notes. That’s in case your tape recorder, iPhone, laptop, Pulse smartpen or any otherwise helpful gadget fails on you. You’ll find that transcribing takes up way too much time on deadline anyway.
- Our adviser encouraged all reporters to call up sources and read back their own quotes to them. It’s a good practice.
- Keep organized. Have an address book with the names of your sources, their title, their contact info and the name of the story they were interviewed.
- Move fast. Tweet news as it happens. Post a paragraph online with a note that says, “For more, see tomorrow’s edition.” The quicker you learn how to be quick, the faster you will be in adjusting to the real world of journalism.
- Take deadlines seriously. When I was working as a copy editor at a daily paper, we had to write an e-mail to five — count ‘em, FIVE — superiors if we were any more than three minutes past deadline. Feel that kind of pressure now. It’s good training.
- Push for deeper stories. Don’t just run with your first obvious idea. Pitch something your editor doesn’t even know about. Start talking to people. Start digging through documents no one else is digging through. Start reporting.
- Get it right. Get it right. Get it right.
- Please, please, learn to delegate. When you delegate a task to someone, you are not relinquishing control, nor are you admitting defeat. You are being a manager. Maintain your ownership over the task. Check up on its progress at reasonable, non-psychotic intervals. And budget out time to train others to do the parts of your job you can’t — or shouldn’t — be doing. Other people want the opportunity to learn something, too. Don’t hog it all to yourself.
- Lead by example, not by force.
- Some writers are going to need more red pen than others. Remember that it’s an intimidating, sometimes hurtful process. Work with them so they understand why changes are being made. You’re the de-facto teacher.
- Communicate. Good God, you’re in the communications industry.
- On the first day your newsroom meets, get everyone’s contact info, schedule and how far from campus they live. This will be vital when breaking news hits.
- Plan an initiation bootcamp for the first week your news staff has formed. That means you need to plan some weeks ahead of time. Include how to use software, how to file stories, how to post breaking news to the website, how to do multimedia, how to shoot good photos, etc. You’d hope that previous classes would have taught these skills, but not everyone was paying attention, and you may have some transfer students who didn’t get the memo. Plus, there are specific ways your publication works, and those are important to iron out before the first edition hits the streets.
- Think visually. I know you’re used to working with words, but you have to coordinate the photographers, videographers, multimedia crew and designers for your stories. If you can’t think visually, ask those who can to think for you.
- Always, always, always have alternatives in mind. I’ve worked as a designer and copy editor for a daily newspaper for three years. Changes happen last-minute all the time. Be ready to completely redo A1 with 15 minutes to deadline.
- Subscribe to Lynda.com and really learn your design software.
- Get reporters to start thinking design, like sidebars and graphics and charts. Coordinate with editors and make sure there is room for them in the paper.
- Get Tim Harrower’s book The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook. It’s excellent. My particular favorite: The Maestro worksheet (PDF).
- At my job, I learned the dollar-bill rule. If you can place a dollar bill on a page and it doesn’t hit some sort of design element — a photo, a pull quote, a sidebar, a drop cap — it’s too much text. Add something, but purposefully.
- Do not give up. College students are surprisingly resistant to all this digital crap. But if you see a way your newsroom can do its job better through the magic of the Internet, stand up for it. It’s up to you, and no one else, to fight to bring your newsroom into the 21st Century.
- Keep up on what’s happening in the industry and new online tools that pop up. If you do nothing else, at least follow Nieman Lab and Mashable.
- If you can, use an open-source CMS to host your website. Don’t go through a third-party CMS. WordPress is great and allows you to 1) own your own advertising, 2) feature stories and multimedia exactly how you want it, and 3) be in control of your own destiny, to speak grandly. Web design, coding and management are just a few more great skills that makes employers drool. If you need help, join the CoPress community. Or read Lauren Rabaino’s post last year on how the Mustang Daily did it.
- Be creative. Don’t just do something with social media because some other news outlet is doing the same thing. Really explore possibilities. Journalism school is the place to experiment and stretch limits. Do it.
I actually have another post waiting in the wings to expand on the role of online editors at student publications. Keep tuned in.