Letter to a college journalist

Gov. Johnson answers mine (foreground right) and Chris' (background right) questions.
Gov. Gary Johnson (left), running for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, answers my question before his speech on campus in October.

And 7 tips to become a better reporter
_____________________

I have been a serious journalist for nearly a year now, beginning as a staff writer last spring then moving up to a copy editor this fall for my school newspaper at Cal State Fullerton.

Editing has given me an acute sense of how journalism works and I have begun to notice the same mistakes and poorly-reported stories beginning journalists write. But don’t get me wrong, I still suck and have a long way to go before becoming a great writer myself.

College journalists need to realize they are actually journalists. They must be on the prowl for news and take the initiative to call people and write a story. But they need to be properly trained, and unfortunately the beginning journalism classes at my school fail to train us.

This means it is up to the student to take the initiative in his or her journalism career.

Here are a few tips beginning reporters need:

1) Don’t be a public relations spokesman.

Repeat: Don’t do PR. This fault of journalism permeates the news world. I saw a press release by a local police department copied and pasted onto a local news station’s website just yesterday. Companies prey on news sites to give them this free unchecked publicity.

2) Ask the tough questions.

You are more likely to get the true answers. I’m normally a pretty shy and timid person, but in the past year I have argued with an ROTC army lieutenant colonel and California’s deputy attorney general (the second-highest lawyer in California government). I even spoke to a suicide victim’s mother for 11 minutes a day after her son’s suicide. It was a hard conversation. But remember, a journalist pledges to uphold the truth. Our thoughts and feelings come secondary.

3) Dig. Investigate.

I feel awkward saying this because I have not really done any investigative reporting, but I plan to this semester. Investigative reporting, I have recently learned, is the crown jewel of journalism. And it is what spokesmen and PR types loathe.

4) Relate the news to your readers.

This is important for college journalists since we have a specific niche. The lead and beginning must be relevant to a college student.

5) Take the hard stories.

I was hesitant to do this as a staff writer because I doubted my reporting abilities. I was probably right. But that means that I should have taken the big story. Because as I learned this semester, it is not for our professors to teach us journalism. It is our responsibility.

During our last newspaper editor meeting, someone (who will remain anonymous) said something interesting. It was us, students, who spent hours learning how to edit, cover controversial stories, get a good photo, design a good page, and teach our fellow students, they said. “You guys are so good because you taught each other. Your teachers didn’t have a damn thing to do with it,” they said.

6) Strive to find the perfect sources.

Not just the first people you talk to. Yes, it’s hard, but we’re journalists and a journalist’s life ain’t easy.

My early stories have a lot of random students inserting their thoughts on a subject that should be dwelt with experts. That is because I simply gave up in my reporting and just found a student lounging around the Quad and asked them. A problem journalists deal with is deadlines and time constraints. Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about deadlines. So you need to know how to find sources quicker.

Know who to talk to, how to get a hold of someone, and contact all the businesses, nonprofits and government agencies involved in a story.

7) Pretend like you’re a professional journalist.

Because the more you imagine it, the more you realize that you actually are a professional journalist, just without the name recognition or fancy credentials.

A college journalist with some reporting experience can cover an event just as well as the reporter for the local newspaper. I saw it with one of our reporters, who covered a hookah lounge controversy. Complaints racked up against the joint, which sits next to a residential neighborhood and gets rambunctious at night. Our reporter covered the city council deliberations and we had three stories chronicling the month-long affair.

I myself wrote a pretty good story on the city mayor hosting a State of the City speech at our university in March. Sitting next to me at the press table, nestled in the back, was the local paper’s Fullerton correspondent. I should have had a business card handy. In fact, for a moment like this, I should have actually had businesses cards in the first place.

_________________________

Now for the fun stuff:

And a friend of mine, as we were running on empty right before finals:

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