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Advice to student: ‘Journalism is not convenient’

When a student journalist asks you for advice about his chosen field, what do you say?

SPJ member and freelance journalist Jennifer Karchmer sent us her response to a student who asked her questions about the ins and outs of reporting as part of an assignment for a communications class. Her answers, we thought, were pretty wise. Does her experience reflect your own? Here’s what she said (with a few details too specific to this student redacted). Let us know what you think…

Thanks for your correspondence. I have only a few minutes to devote so please see below some suggestions and advice.

  • Journalism is not convenient. You might be taking notes in the rain, not have an AC outlet to plug in your computer or there’s outside noise affecting your ability to concentrate. You have to deal with this as a journalist. I would let your school know the limited Internet or cell phone service is affecting your ability to do the work but take responsibility and find a place to conduct your interviews. Walk to the dining hall, borrow a friends car to go into town. Do whatever it takes. The responsibility is on you as the journalist to work hard. Don’t make your sources work harder. They are already giving you their time (for free often).
  • The preferred interview channels are in this order: 1) in person, 2) over the phone/Skype, 3) via email. Obviously in person will allow you to use all five senses, what is the person wearing, nonverbals like eye contact, facial features etc. Phone is second best and via email means that you are getting canned responses. In some cases, you can only rely on email but shoot for in person first.
  • Stick with the profession!! I majored in journalism in college and have been working as a professional journalist since 1991. I have moved in and out of the profession a few times thinking I could make more money, which was true. But I was never fulfilled working for corporations or in a cubicle 9-6p. You are not going to get rich being a journalist! But if you really want to write, tell stories that are important to society go for it. Explore ways to work from home, be freelance and travel.
  • It’s fine to work for some mainstream news outlets to start to get your feet wet and find out how CNN, ABC, FOX operate. Keep your eyes open and ask yourself is this real journalism? Can I do this better, more objectively, more thoroughly as an independent or at an outlet like Democracy Now?
  • Sure the technology is important: iPhones, social media, use of Twitter, etc. But find out what FOIA means, computer assisted reporting and data driven journalism. These are the cornerstones of investigative journalism which we are in need of. Tell your professors to teach you these terms and why they’re important. During your college career own at least ONE BIG Story. Start following something at your school now as a first-year student so by the time you’re a junior or senior you will have a few years worth of research, data and interviews to write your BIG story. Publish it in your school paper but also go to the local papers and even bigger: NYTimes, Wash Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. This will get you noticed more than your ability to shoot footage on your phone or video edit. Those are tools. You will need to show final product to get hired.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

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