Sitting and filling out evaluations for J4450 Reporting was surreal. As I bubbled, I thought back to my orientation in January, where I distinctly remember asking myself what the hell I was getting myself into. Sufficiently scared, I jumped headfirst into journalism at the Columbia Missourian.
Lo and behold, it was the busiest, craziest and most educational semester of my time in college thus far. I didn’t necessarily learn lots of new AP Style entries or writing fundamentals. That’s kid stuff compared to dealing with sources, learning to interview well, handling criticism with poise and enterprising story ideas.
I had the chance to report on the local education scene, where I covered difficult budgeting decisions for CPS and the school board elections. I covered issues integral to Columbia, like the effect of census data on school redistricting and the honoring of a local coach by the Kansas City Royals. I wrote a myriad of news and crime briefs and went to countless district meetings. Practice makes perfect, right?
The most exciting opportunities I had happened in the same week. I went to Southeast Missouri to Poplar Bluff to find a Columbia angle to the flooding situation there, and I walked around Mizzou’s Greektown the night of Osama Bin Laden’s death to find student reactions.
After about four months of solid reporting, writing and editing, I have a few words of advice for the next crop of J4450 Reporters:
Volunteer like crazy: You’ll hear this from the ACES and the editors, but always be the first to raise your hand. The quickest way to acclimate yourself to reporting and interviewing and to build your portfolio is to jump right in. Everyone likes someone who is willing to pick up a story in pinch and can deliver clean, well-written copy.
Learn proper phone etiquette: J445o reporters are automatically at a disadvantage because we are students. Sources sometimes respect us less, and that leads to even more trouble getting information down the road. Here’s what to avoid:
- Likes, Ums, and otherwise immature speech/tone: Adopt a polite, professional demeanor when talking to sources or secretaries or anyone who might help you. I’d like to say a naturally high-pitched voice won’t hurt you, but lowering your pitch slightly will mature you slightly, need be.
- Confusion: Always give your name and identify yourself as a Missourian reporter. Speak slowly and clearly.
- Over-familiarity: sources are oftentimes professionals, sometimes politicians, and almost always outrank you. Refer to them by their courtesy titles (Dr., Senator, Rev.). If you don’t know that, Mr. or Ms. will suffice.
Don’t be a door mat: Yes, you are an entry-level reporter, but that doesn’t mean that what you are doing isn’t important. If sources clam up, push a little to try to get your information. Sometimes asking the same question in a different or more open-ended way can get a better response. If someone gets verbally abusive or too abrasive, stay calm, say you need to go, then ask your editor to help with damage-control.
Know when to sit one out: I tried to be an active reporter, picking up stories frequently and making sure I made adequate face-time in the newsroom. But sometimes, I just wanted to be as far from the Missourian as possible. It’s hard to balance reporting and real life sometimes, but it’s important to know when you’ve reached your limit. Getting burned out in the first four weeks won’t help you. You’ll just get frustrated, and it will show in your stories.
Well, it’s gone by quickly, but I am not sorry to say goodbye to my reporting semester. I have found a new love for reporting, no doubt about it, but the summer will be a much-needed break.
Look for me next semester as an ACE or at the copy desk!