Illustration of different student journalism forms
Use this advice from a senior journalism major to help make strides in your own work. (Illustration by Diana Egan, University of Kentucky)
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Illustration of different student journalism forms

As a senior looking back on my time, I realized five pieces of advice I would have benefitted from as an incoming freshman.

In journalism, remember this: Who, What, When, Where, Why and possibly How.

This is what you will hear for the next four years. The six questions a reporter should always answer in every news story is a simple way to create great content.

I quickly used this technique in my first ever journalism class I took as a college freshman at Franklin Pierce University.

I remember being completely intimidated as my classmates blurted out story ideas while my professor wrote them on the board next to their names. My first story hadn’t even been my idea — it was my peer’s secondhand idea.

A student-run group was raising money for the damages done by a hurricane. When writing down questions for the student organizers, I wrote down the five W’s and one H, using them as a guide.

The entire thing was about 400 words, and it had two quotes. But, it said everything the readers needed to know. My question list is still built on this guide, and it doesn’t matter if the list is 15 or three questions long.

A journalism career is hard when first starting out, and there are a few things I wish I would have known.

You basically have to learn how to write again. Journalism is not the same as writing an essay or fiction story. Once you can write, you need to learn how to talk to people and make them comfortable, so they give you the answers you want. Most importantly, you need to ask the right questions.

As I come to the end of my senior year, here are five things I wish I knew as a first-year journalism student.

1. Get Involved Early

Join your school’s student newspaper. If you aren’t the biggest fan, try the school’s magazine, radio station or TV station, until you find out what you like. College is all about exploring what your interests are and finding out what you don’t like.

Being involved and practicing your craft will help you go far.

2. Reach Out to Sources Immediately and Confidently

There is no procrastinating in journalism — save that for your 10-page essay in history class. Stories are typically due the same day you are assigned to them.

My freshman year I would have described myself as shy and introverted, but the only thing I could do was act like an outgoing person. My professor told me once that he was more afraid of his editors than his potential sources — whether that be calling them, emailing them or walking right up to them to ask for an interview.

You have a job to do and a story to publish, so you can’t be afraid to reach out to sources and ask questions.

3. Be Prepared: Write Down More Questions than You Need for An Interview

As a journalist, you need to be as prepared as you possibly can. When writing down questions before meeting with a source, I think about every possible direction an interview could go, then think of follow-up questions.

This also shows the interviewee you did your research and value their time, and they will typically be more willing to share with you. You will also avoid long awkward pauses due to the fact you don’t have another question.

4. Make Sources feel Comfortable

This one takes practice, and you will get better at interviewing the more you do it. However, here are some tricks that can help you:

  • Ask the easy questions first and save the harder questions for last
  • Thank them for talking to you before and after the interview
  • Be engaged

What I mean by easy questions is asking them: where they are from, to describe their role in the project, elaborate feelings toward this event or statement, etc. This gets the interviewee talking and engaged in the conversation. They are then more likely to answer the harder questions because they are going to feel comfortable with you.

The reason behind thanking them before and after the conversation is just basic manners, and it is professional. This helps build connections, and sources are more likely to talk to you again down the line.

And, for the last one: Who wants to talk to someone who looks like they couldn’t care less about what you have to say? It is important to really listen to a source, and this helps you ask great follow-up questions you may not have anticipated asking.

5. Use Your Professor’s Office Hours

You are paying for your professors to teach you. I wish I went to my journalism professors’ office hours more often and asked them for writing feedback, advice or just talked to them.

These hours can be extremely beneficial if you are struggling in class or with your writing. You also establish a relationship with your professor and having connections is significant in the field of journalism. You never know when or where you are going to see someone again.

It could help you land a job or get a five-minute interview with someone essential to a story.

These tips and strategies should give you a head-start. You’ll learn the rest on your own in no time.

But, I’ll give you a few more — always ask a source to spell out their name, learn their contact information and always get the name of the dog.

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