If you’re just starting out your career in journalism, here are some important things to keep in mind. Pay attention to all of them and your boss will pay attention to YOU.
1. Buy a digital voice recorder.
You might have been able to get by at your college publication by just taking notes. That won’t cut it in the real world. Before the first day of your internship or new job, hit up your local electronics store and invest in a quality voice recorder. One with a decent microphone and a good amount of storage will run you about $70, but it will be the best money you’ve ever spent. You won’t have to take up storage space by recording on your iPhone or worry about writing down quotes quickly enough. Plus, your boss and your sources will see it as a sign of professionalism.
2. Be professional.
Show up to work on time and wearing attire appropriate to your office. (Be sure you ask about office attire before day one.) Treat your coworkers and boss with respect, even if they’re young, as may be the case at many newer publications. And whatever you do, don’t forget that you represent your publication. If you get drunk and make a fool of yourself at an industry function, you’ll likely get reprimanded or even fired. No one wants a loose cannon making the whole team look bad. And for the love of all that is good, don’t waste time on social media during the workday. Work is for working. If you don’t have enough to do, ask for another assignment.
3. Do your homework.
Don’t get caught posing a dumb question at a press conference or to a source. You can immediately damage your credibility by doing so. Research your topic thoroughly beforehand, and then research some more. Ask your boss and coworkers for background information. Before you even start your job, however, research your publication. Familiarize yourself with its content, voice, political position and competitors. You can also damage your credibility to your boss by asking dumb questions. If you’re an intern at a D.C. publication, you shouldn’t have to ask questions like, “Who is Cathy McMorris Rodgers?” or “Where does the Senate meet?”
4. Stay organized.
Create an easy-to-use filing system in your email so you never lose important information. Keep your calendar up-to-date so you don’t lose track of work commitments. “I forgot” is not an acceptable excuse for missing an event you were supposed to cover. Be on top of your stuff, in whatever way works best for you, and your boss won’t feel the need to breathe down your neck.
5. Take detailed notes.
Pay attention, because this is crucial. Technology always fails. If you rely entirely on your voice recorder to do all your work for you, you’re going to be completely at a loss on the day it decides to freeze up and die. You must always take notes to accompany your recordings. Those notes are even more helpful if you time-stamp them. There is nothing worse than being forced to re-listen to an entire press conference just to find the exact phrasing of one quote. The more work you do on your notes, the less work you have to do later. Also, don’t forget to take notes when your boss is giving you an assignment. They don’t want to tell you something twice.
6. Be prepared.
You’ve heard the quote “Never bring a knife to a gunfight”? Journalism is that gunfight, and you need to have the right tools with you. Don’t head out to cover a rally in the middle of winter without a thick coat, hat and gloves. Girls, don’t show up to work wearing heels unless you’ve got a set of flats in your bag. If you’re asked to cover a press conference a couple blocks away at the last minute, you need to be able to get there quickly without breaking an ankle. Buy a purse or briefcase that can easily fit your laptop, chargers (for computer AND phone), voice recorder, notebook and pens. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries for your recorder, and consider investing in a backup external battery for charging your phone on the go.
7. Keep your copy clean and accurate.
You might be a killer researcher with a great nose for news, but if you can’t put together an article that’s clean and accurate, you’ve got a problem. And so does your boss. Invest the extra time to proofread your pieces one last time. Make sure names are spelled correctly, facts are sound and your punctuation is in the right place. The less time your editor spends changing the little things, the more time he or she can spend helping you work through the bigger, conceptual problems. You’ll learn more that way and your editor won’t be frustrated by continually correcting the same errors. Don’t waste their time.
8. Read, read, read.
The best way to write well is to read well-written pieces. Read the great journalists from earlier eras and peruse the content of current writers you like. Expand your knowledge, especially about topics your publication covers regularly. Focus some of your efforts on a particular area that interests you in order to cultivate some expertise. At the very least, you should know the biggest stories in the news each day.
9. Develop a thick skin.
Journalism is a tough industry. If you can’t stand up to criticism, you might want to find a new field. Your boss wants to help you learn, and there might be some tough love involved in that process. Admit when you’ve screwed up, take his or her advice seriously and keep going. Make your next piece better than the one before it. And when the criticism comes from outside your publication, respond to it graciously, fix any mistakes (and be sure to alert your editor to them) and still keep going. Quitters don’t get far.
10. Be humble and respectful.
You’re young, and you don’t know everything. Don’t act like you do. No one likes interns who think they’re all that and a slice of toast. Treat everyone — and I seriously mean everyone — with respect. That means your boss, your coworkers, your fellow interns, your sources, your friends, your competitors and, someday, your own interns. You never know what great scoop or amazing job you’ll land five years down the road by being friendly, trustworthy and professional now.
Kelsey Osterman is a freelance writer who lives in Oregon. She met her fiancé, Henry, on Twitter when she was working in D.C.