Welcome to J-school, where the next few years of your life will be rife with newspaper subscriptions, phone interviews and 3 a.m. scrambles to hunt down your last source before your 8 a.m. deadline. As a journalism student who attends a university that places a heavy emphasis on STEM programs and research, I bask in the uniqueness of my major. If I don’t, who will? If I had a nickel for every time a non-journalism student gave me a sympathetic look because “I’m not going to make a lot of money after graduating,” well, I’d basically have enough dough to prove them wrong.
If you’ve paid any attention to the stories surrounding political events, you know that the media industry has been in the hot seat because of distrust in news reports presenting inaccurate details, uniquely termed “fake news.”
And, if you’ve paid attention to stories dissecting fake news, you know that social media helps spread that shit like wildfire. Yes, the same social media that has assisted news sites in growing their readerships. I guess it’s safe to say that this whole reporter thing can be pretty fucking difficult, and J-schoolers are still just complaining about emailing a source five times before receiving a response.
But, after you walk across that stage in a too-loose cap and a too-sweaty gown, you’ll walk away with not only knowledge about verification and how to write a lede, but also with valuable lessons that most non-journalism students don’t learn the way you’ve learned them. Here is a list of the top six J-school life lessons.
1. Apply to Jobs Like You Reach Out to Sources
When your editor or professor asks you to bring back three sources for a story, you should plan to reach out to at least three times that number. “Call up 20 people” is the journalism translation of “get four sources.”
You can’t put all your eggs in one basket; don’t expect to get everything you need from one source. Hell, don’t be surprised if three-quarters of your sources don’t respond to you.
Isn’t this starting to sound like applying for jobs or internships? You might have a list of the top 10 companies you want to work for this summer.
You’ll send your materials over and likely receive a response from only two companies. I know, reaching out to a large number of people is tedious, but you learn to throw laziness to the wind. It’s better to play it safe than to be under-sourced (or unemployed).
2. Stop Beating Around the Bush with Word Count
When you’re on a deadline, nothing moves faster than the hands of a clock (or your heart beating anxiously). There’s no time to stop for an Instagram break. A conversation with your colleague about Starbucks’ newest drink will have to wait.
Your priority is putting out the best damn story you can in 15 minutes or less. Every word must be deliberate and move the story along. There’s no time to get your sentences dolled up for nothing.
It’s like not wanting to tell your best friend that you don’t want to go to that party with her, so you keep trying to talk your way around it. “I don’t know, I might have some work to do later, and it’s so annoying, but like, we’ll see.” This gets you nowhere.
You didn’t give a straight answer, so you’re right back where you started, and your friend will probably ask you how your work is coming along, and if you’ll be finished in time for the party in about four hours or so. Life is simpler when you tell people what they need to know.
3. Tell Stories the Way You’d Give a Podcast
Your voice is your instrument, and you are a conductor in a podcast. People rely on your voice to fill them with excitement, make their blood boil or bring them to tears. A podcast is successful when you don’t sound like you’re reading off a paper.
Seven year olds may be intrigued by robots, but I don’t think they want one reading them a bedtime story. You learn to change your tone in certain areas and raise or lower your voice in others. You emphasize words deliberately. This makes the story more entertaining for children, whether it’s a niece, nephew or a kid you babysit; it makes the podcast more appealing to your audience.
4. Liking Is Not the Same as Loving
One of the hardest lessons every journalism student must learn is that it’s simply not enough to like writing to survive J-School. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the more classes you take, the more you realize that there’s more to journalism than writing. And, if you’re not up for the wild ride, it may not be worth your time to continue.
The difference between love and like can influence many decisions, big or small.
If you’re dropping $300 on a pair of sunglasses, you better make damn sure you love them to the moon and back. Otherwise, you’ll just feel like you wasted your money. If you want to pack up your entire life and move to another country, I hope you’re ready to fall in love.
5. Hesitation Leads to Missed Opportunity
“He who hesitates is lost.” In journalism, those who hesitate just lost, most likely, an opportunity to capture a breathtaking photo for a story, or snag an interview with a source who can completely turn your lede on its head.
So, don’t lose your head when thinking about decisions. I, like many others, say the word “no” a lot. It’s familiar and keeps me comfortable when I have doubts about a situation. But it’s become too comfortable.
This year, I began telling myself that the two good reasons for saying “no” to opportunity are financial reasons or time constraints that can’t be worked out. Any other reason for declining just means I’m holding myself back, and letting opportunity pass me by without a backward glance.
6. Phone Calls Are Actually NOT Scary
Screw emails. If you’re a reporter and you only have 20 minutes to get a new source for a story or risk not getting published, you’ll be damned if you sit behind an email instead of picking up the phone. Call, call, call! You get comfortable with calling and holding a conversation with strangers.
Most millennials cringe at the thought of using their cell phones for their original purpose of placing calls. Texting has become so common that people practically lose their voices while the line rings in their ear. Sorry, but I don’t think you can email your doctor’s office to make an appointment for yourself.