July 9, 2013

Career Advice

Tips for Your First Journalism Job

By: Megan Ward

You should use many of the steps you used in getting an internship for landing your first job. Research the newspapers where you are interested in working. Do more than plug in the newspaper’s name in your cover letter. Write about specific projects the paper has produced, some of their community service projects, and regular features of the paper that impress you.

Then, quickly move on to what you will bring to the paper. If you have had an internship, tell what you accomplished there. List the software you have worked with and your computer skills. Give your clips. (Most editors and HR managers want clips sent electronically so make sure those links are still live before you send them.)

If the paper offers you an interview, you need to do more research. Read the paper for several days. Make sure to read that day’s paper cover to cover. If you get a chance to meet the lifestyles editor, mention how much you enjoyed the package on summer gardening or dog training.

Come to the interview with a list of questions that showcase your interest in the work. Ask about a typical day at the paper, the culture in the newsroom, the connection between the paper and the community and government leaders, and projects about which the editor is particularly proud.

The next day, send a thank you note, and wait for an offer before asking about the 401k or vacation time and salary.

Manage Your Beat

Being a good reporter means more than showing up at meetings or crime scenes. It means getting to know people and gaining their trust enough so they will tell you information. This trust comes from continual contact with your sources.

Cultivating good sources is not about being liked; it’s about being respected and trusted to get the information right. The first step to establishing this trust is after the first interview and story with that source. Call him or her and ask his or her thoughts about the story you wrote. Too often a source will spend time with a reporter and won’t hear from her or him for months until that reporter wants another story. Checking back with the source shows you care about accuracy. This fosters trust.

This is especially important because in your career, you will write about things that will embarrass a source or illustrate a source’s failing. Accurate and responsible reporting will enable you to write about the bad stuff and still have that person respect you.

Check regularly with a list of sources. Call them at least once a week and find out what’s happening. Keep a list of your contacts. Every time you get a new number, log it, especially cell phone numbers. Make sure everyone has yours.

Get Out and Get Connected

Don’t do your reporting by phone. You will get more information and connect more by interviewing someone in their office or home. Reporters who do most of their reporting by phone are lazy. Their stories are bland and lack details. Getting out of the newsroom will make you a stronger reporter with vivid and compelling stories.

Getting out of the newsroom extends to your social life as well. A journalist who simply goes to work and then home to watch Netflix will not be a good journalist. A good journalist is connected to the community. Join a club. Volunteer on a board; be a mentor. If you’re religious, join a local church. Not are only such interactions the source of stories, but you will be a happier and better journalist with a stronger connection with people in the community about which you are reporting.

Become a Good Planner

One of the best perks of being a journalist is having control of how you spend your days. But it’s only a perk if you know how to plan. Never come to work without knowing what you will do that day. Make a weekly story budget and follow it. The assignment editor, who usually doesn’t get out of the office much, will have a list of needed stories, stories about church fundraisers, blood drives, and retirements—in other words, boring assignments. Those without a plan that day will be sure to get those.

Knowing your beat, knowing what’s happening in the community, and having a plan are the best ways to give you control over how you spend your days, and the best ways to further your career. Clips filled with obituaries and town council meetings will not impress editors at larger papers.

Megan Ward (mward@hpe.com) is editor of the High Point Enterprise in High Point, North Carolina. This piece was originally published in the Institute for Humane Studies Journalism Career Guide.