Journalism in the real world: A six-month reflection

Well, I’m half way there. Today marks six months since I started living in this weird little place called “The Real World.” And it’s definitely been an interesting venture so far.

When I first started my job as a staff reporter, I was also working at a second internship, which I started around Thanksgiving. Needless to say, the real world kicked my ass. I was working about 50+ hours a week between the full-time gig and the internship, along with doing interviews for InsideSTL’s music section in what little downtime I had left.

About three months in, I gave up on trying to hold down a full- and part-time job and a sporadic writing gig. I quit my internship to focus on my full-time reporting job. (I still write pretty regularly for InsideSTL.) Even though I’m still trying to find things to do to fill my time on my Wednesdays off, I’m glad I went the path I did. I think I would have burned out way too fast if I tried keeping up at that pace.

The only problem is that now I feel like I have too much down time. I went from being a full-time student and part-time journalist (which, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a “part-time journalist,” even at the college level) to a full-time journalist and somehow ended up with more down time than when I was in school.

I’m not constantly on the go anymore, despite spending the majority of my weeknights covering meetings. I don’t have some work or school-related task to take up every waking (and sleeping) hour of my life. It’s so… weird. So weird, in fact, that I even went back to SIUE to chat with the Mass Comm department chair about grad school. I really do want to return to school at some point and get a Master’s so I can be better equipped to reach one of my ultimate career goals (creating a magazine). But, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But anyway, to get off that tangent and back on track…

Life in the real world isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (She says knowing everyone around her is saying, “I TOLD YOU SO!!!”). I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the transition from a college newsroom to a community newspaper newsroom was shocking, to be blunt. At the Alestle, we had a staff of roughly 20 to 30 to cover one college campus, not including the advertising department. Where I work now, we have a staff of about 10 to 12 including secretarial, advertising, part-time office workers, etc., where my editor and myself are the entire editorial staff.

The staff size alone was a shock, let alone the way stories ideas are generated. Most stories come from board meetings/agendas now. In college, the ideas came from talking to people, searching SIUE’s website, campus events, etc. I just thank the journalism gods that my former managing editor (and later editor in chief) stuck me on the student government beat back when I was a baby reporter. It prepared me more than I could have ever realized at the time.

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make is having very few people to vent to about the frustrations of my first “real” journalism job. Back in college, my best friends worked for the paper too, so there was plenty of time to get out our frustrations in between editorial meetings, watching episodes of Archer in the office and random nights out of the office.

But when your closest journalism friends from college either don’t go into the industry after graduation, or they’re at least 45 miles away, the healthy venting time just isn’t there. And it makes the stress twice as hard to manage.

Even though I’ve made post-collegiate life sound like a depressing hell, I promise it’s not all bad. I am getting great experience and learning new things with every issue we publish. Because our staff is so frackin’ tiny, I also copy edit the entire paper and post a majority of our content online. The small staff does allow me to hone other skills I have but aren’t quite where they could be.

I’ve also been able to write some pretty cool stories. A member of British parliament was visiting Jefferson Barracks a few months back, and I had the opportunity to cover her visit and interview her. And, one of my first post-collegiate stories was about the one-year anniversary of a tornado that ripped through the city of Sunset Hills the previous New Year’s Eve.

So, it’s really not all that bad. But the transition is the hardest part. THE. HARDEST. PART. But you (read, “I”) can’t let the frustration wear you down. Because it will cloud your vision, and you won’t be able to see how much progress you’re able to make and how much you really are contributing to the media outlet(s) you work for.

But because (as far as I can tell) journalists are generally a pessimistic, dark and depressing bunch (with a wicked sense of inappropriate, yet always entertaining humor), I can’t very well end this post on a happy note. So, here we go: When I was texting one of my old Alestle friends about some of these issues, he texted me back John Mayer song lyrics. At first I thought it was funny and a little odd coming from him. But then I realized, it’s so true…

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Journalism conferences reignite passion, dedication

Earlier this month, I packed my bags and got a break from the Midwest for a little journalistic re-charge. Yup, I went to a journalism conference. In Florida.

I was one of about 30-something young journalists accepted to this year’s Society of Professional Journalists Reporters Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when I found out I got accepted. But even more so when I set foot at the Poynter Institute, where most of our sessions were held.

The conference was amazing. I met a lot of great, talented and extremely passionate journalists from across the country. But I think most importantly, it was a refreshing break from the day-to-day routine that I’ve grown used to at my newspaper. Having been there almost six months, I think it’s safe to say I have somewhat of a system in place that, as everyone knows, can get predictable at times — even in the ever-changing world of journalism.

So it was nice to just step back, take a break and relax with other journalists. Plus, being half-way across the country didn’t make things any worse, obviously.

I’ve been attending journalism conferences at least once a year since I was a junior in high school. And every time I return from a trip, my head is exploding with new ideas and a new excitement that I just didn’t have before. I guess I always knew how important conferences are to for keeping your passion going, but I never really put it together until now.

Not to say that I was getting complacent before I left for SPJRI — because I wasn’t — but I think I fell into a little bit of a journalistic rut. Most of my friends are still back at school or scattered throughout the country, so I haven’t really had many people to talk to about journalism or my writing or anything along those lines. But then I got to welcome reception the first night of the conference, and all of a sudden there was a whole new world of people to talk to.

They had the same problems, the same successes, the same everything. Regardless of what platform they worked for.

And, even though I was technically at the conference for work, it was a break. A break from deadlines. From meetings. From interviews. From late nights and early mornings. A break that I desperately needed.

Now, having been back at the office for about a week (though this will be dated by the time this blog is actually posted), I’m glad to say that re-ignited passion is still there. I’m sure it will die out in a few months, just like it always does. But that doesn’t mean the passion is gone. It just means that I need another shot in the arm, so to speak, of immersing myself in the culture of journalism. And if that culture (aka conference) just happens to occur halfway across the country again, then so be it.

Everybody needs to re-boot now and then. Why not do it with a bunch of people who can relate to the same things you’re dealing with? It’ll be like a big, happy, journalism intervention. And who doesn’t need something like that every once in a while?

Teach me how to FOIA. Teach me, teach me how to FOIA.

F. O. I. A.

The four letters that every journalists loves to hear, and the four letters that public officials (more often than not) fear the most. But I can’t help but love them anyway.

Compared to other more seasoned journalists, I’ve filed relatively few FOIA requests. But there’s such a (dorky) sense of accomplishment that comes with requesting information you might otherwise not have had the chance to obtain.

Maybe that’s why the FOIA session at the recent SPJ Reporters Institute was one of my favorites. Michael Morisy, the founder of MuckRock.com, provided some great information on how to dig deeper and get the most of FOIA requests. Some (probably obvious), but extremely helpful information will follow:

  • Look for items in one document that will lead to others
  • Constantly send out FOIA requests (You can only get better with practice)
  • The more specific the request (including key words/phrases/dates/etc.) the more likely it is that you’ll get a response
  • Confirm the correct person actually received the request
  • Be sure to follow up if you don’t get an update or response within the stated timeframe
  • Know the public records law in your coverage are

I know these things sound like common sense. But for someone who had little to no experience filing FOIA requests before getting my first job out of college, this information was extremely helpful. And since attending the session, I’ve become more tuned in to items in documents (whether or not they were obtained by a FOIA request) that could lead to FOIA requests or that simply generate story ideas.

The value of public documents seems to be overlooked in many places that don’t focus on investigative reporting. I mainly cover local government, so this is my prime opportunity to get the most out of public records. And I can wait to dig into the piles upon piles of documents that will lead to other documents and (hopefully) produce some great investigative pieces.

Letting Go of Your College Newspaper

On my last official day as editor in chief of the Alestle, I refused to turn in my office keys until I left for the last time. As childish as that sounds, that just shows how much I didn’t want to leave the paper. And as I’m writing, a certain U2 song comes to mind… ignoring the “love” aspect, of course.

Anyway, back to my point. Even though I was looking forward to graduating and starting a new job, I didn’t want to leave the Alestle. I didn’t want to leave Edwardsville. I didn’t want to leave my friends — most of them worked at the Alestle. I didn’t want to leave with so much left undone.

As graduation got closer, I slowly started to realize there was so much more I wanted to do. I wanted to keep improving the paper. I didn’t even have a full year to make changes, help new reporters, work with new editors, etc. Everything I had worked for was just being left. Incomplete. Unfinished. Halfway finished. And I hated it.

But, obviously I had to snap out of it and get to work a couple weeks later, which I did. But I’ve spent so much time comparing my current newsroom to my college newsroom. The atmosphere is different. The conversation is different. The memories… it’s all different. Not necessarily bad-different. Just…  sad-nostalgic-different.

And I went back a few times to help with the transition for the new editor in chief. It was fun to go back and get thrown into the rush of deadline in the same newsroom that I walked out of stressed and near-tears so many times. (Yeah, I realize how weird that sounds.) It felt like I was in the right place.

But the last time I went to visit, it was different. Everyone was busy. They were rushing in and out of the office between classes, getting assignments ready for the next week, figuring out class schedules. And I realized, I don’t belong here anymore. As much as I love the Alestle, and as much as I want to see everyone on staff (editors now, but just baby reporters a year and a half ago) succeed and make the paper the best it can be, I know I need to leave it alone.

It’s not my place to critique, suggest, criticize or edit. I did my part while I was there. I didn’t have former editors lurking around trying to relive their glory days. And I don’t want to be that former editor. A visit every now and then? That’s totally cool. But to visit. Not to do any hands-on assisting with the paper itself.

It’s their turn to do things. And I know they’ll do them well. Sure, there will be some screw ups along the way — I know I had my fair share of them. But it’s part of the process.

And, now that I’ve written a completely cheesy and totally sappy blog post, I think it’s important to point out that, despite what the general public says, JOURNALISTS ARE NOT UNEMOTIONAL. WE HAVE FEELINGS! They’re just covered underneath many layers of newsprint and pica poles…

I would be a terrible public relations person

It’s pretty obvious that quite a few journalists eventually end up switching to public relations. I’m sure they have their reasons, and that’s fine for them. But I can tell you one thing for sure — If I ever (God forbid) went into public relations, I would be the worst PR person. Ever.

First of all, I wouldn’t stonewall journalists. If they needed to talk to a high up exec for a big story, I’d give them as much contact information as possible. I wouldn’t be the barrier between the “important people” and the journalists, I’d be the journalist’s enabler. If the situation came up, I could honestly see myself giving out contact information that I’m not supposed to, with a “You didn’t get this from me” type of comment attached. Also, I would make it a point to pester whoever necessary about returning phone calls, emphasizing deadlines.

But the biggest reason, I don’t think I could ever see myself being forced to hinder the reporting process for someone else. It’s extremely frustrating when that happens, when you’re sent from PR person to PR person and, most of the times, you don’t even hear back from them until after deadline — if they even get back to you at all. I know not all PR gigs are like that. Most of the PR people I worked with in college and work with now on a regular basis are great. They do everything they can to meet requests, coordinate interviews, etc.

Like in every profession, it’s the few bad ones that frustrate people so much. But then again, depending on what perspective you’re looking at, the “bad ones” could be the “good ones.” And I never want to be in that kind of position.

I’m a journalist through and through. A transition to public relations for me would be like turning my back on my beliefs — like Captain Malcom Reynolds joining the Alliance. (Points to those of you who get that reference, by the way.) And if I ever did that, it’d be a gorram shame.

Bickering between journalistic mediums doesn’t help anyone

I don’t take kindly to people — especially people in the journalism industry — saying that what I do for a living is part of a dying art or taking shots at the industry itself. Yes, I know newspapers aren’t in the shape they were, say, 20 to 30 years ago. But as far as I’m concerned, they’re far from dead. And that’s where I take issue with some comments Henry Blodget made in a response to Dan Reimold’s reaction to a New York Times Magazine article that profiled Business Insider Deputy Editor Joe Weisenthal.

Now that that mouthful of a description is out of the way, I’ll get to my point.

I have no issue with the profile on Weisenthal or anything along those lines. My issue is with how Blodget responded to comments made about Weisenthal. I’ll take it point by point.

“The professor seems appalled that Joe Weisenthal loves to work so much. Perhaps that’s because, in the past couple of decades of print journalism, life had been so good that print journalists got used to not having to work much.”

Insinuating that it’s a good thing that large (not community) newspapers are vanishing is extremely frustrating. There isn’t a journalist I know who likes the idea of a slow newsroom or not having to work hard for a story. My current newsroom is slow some days, busy others. But that’s how EVERYTHING is, in any industry. And, if anything, print journalists have to work twice as hard (even on a slow day) to make up for the layoffs and forced restructuring that is doing its best to cripple print newsrooms across the country.

“In a world in which millions of sources of information are a click away, having a talented journalist monitor and filter and add smart context to that global information fire hose in real time is extremely valuable to readers… That’s why Joe Weisenthal and other talented digital writers write fast and speak conversationally (TV news hosts do the same thing–they just do it on camera). If the professor worked in a profession in which news mattered, he might have more appreciation for that.”

Since when is teaching young journalists not a profession in which news matters?? If journalism professors can’t properly communicate the news, how to write it/broadcast it/etc., and ways to effectively communicate information to the masses, then what’s the point?

Overall, it seems contradictory to complain about and bash print journalism and to try and portray digital journalism as the be-all, end-all of the journalism industry, when most journalists start out in print. He goes on to say that he doesn’t want a print journalist or a TV journalist, he wants digital journalists to work for him. But you can’t have one without the other. All the skills are intertwined. Print journalists use Twitter for real-time coverage about a story they’re working on for the next print issue. TV journalists write versions of their stories to supplement the video package.

Everything is integrated now. There’s no such thing as a print journalist, a TV journalist or a digital journalist. It’s all the same thing. The only thing that needs to be looked at it is which skills does an individual have the most experience in, what’s their specialty?

When journalists are scrutinized so closely by everyone with an opinion, ready and waiting to point out the tiniest flaw,  journalists shouldn’t be taking shots at each other via blog posts. (Though I realize this blog kind of contradicts that point.) They can have healthy debates, sure. But to denounce one form of journalism in favor of another just makes the whole industry look bad as far as I’m concerned.

Reducing staff: apparently a necessary evil

Not long ago, my hometown daily newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, laid off six staffers. And now it’s looking for a sports editor. AND. Not too long ago, maybe six months ago, two of the local TV stations joined forces, so we see the same anchors and reporters on both stations.

I know the economy is forcing the journalism industry to change, but I can’t understand how anyone in the industry can be comfortable with the fact that newspaper and broadcast staffs are slowly, but surely being reduced. This tweet says it best:

A recent New York Times article shows that what is happening in STL isn’t unique. There’s a problem in the media industry, and I feel like it’s got a chokehold on the business. I can’t see any argument where eliminating good reporters, photographers, anchors, etc. will help the industry. Doing so reduces competition. And when there’s no competition, people get lazy. It doesn’t have to be ruthless, cutthroat competition, but rather healthy competition.

There’s something about the rush of deadline and a sweet satisfaction that comes with getting the news online or in print first. It helps keep the passion and fire alive. Without competition — even within the same newsroom — I fear that that “fire in the belly” aspect of journalism will slowly disappear, and the quality of news will go on a slow decline.

I don’t want that to happen. But unless someone can find a way to stop it, I’m not sure that we have a choice. But I’d love to be proven wrong.

Online Common Sense for Journos

Let me preface this by saying this is probably a pointless post. So if you don’t read any further, I won’t blame you at all. But I’ve seen some people in the industry post really dumb things that could (obviously) come back to haunt them. So this is a “WAKE UP, YOU DUMMY!” for them. And maybe you. But probably not. You seem like you have your online-self together.

1. Don’t post passive-aggressive status updates on Facebook that are indirectly directed at your editor — especially if you’re friends with other staff members. Or if you’re friends with anyone, really.

2. Don’t Tweet negative things about your newsroom in fits of stress or frustration. Despite how many “Favorites” or “RTs” you get, you won’t be thinking about that when your editor calls you out about said frustration tweet.

3. Stop posting all those pictures of you with booze. We all know journos like their booze, but if you want to make sure you have enough money to scrape together to buy that booze, knock it off with all that picture-takin’.

4. Don’t complain about stories you’re working on, the long hours or the low pay — unless you do so in a quirky way and use the #PartyLikeAJournalist hashtag. That’s the only way to do it.

5. Take down all those pictures of you with booze. No brainer, right?

6. Always put either “Tweets are personal opinion,” “These tweets do no reflect the views of [news organization],” or “RTs are not endorsements.” Or all of the above.

7. If you post anything negative, someone WILL find out about it and tell your editor. It might take a while, but it’ll happen eventually.

So, in conclusion. Just don’t be dumb, cool, bud-dies?

Death to Comic Sans

I hate Comic Sans. HATE IT. It’s the worst font I have ever seen, including Wing Dings. It’s ugly. Childish. Unprofessional. And the list goes on.

This is my outcry against any and all people, places and organizations that use this horrendous typeface. I’ve received press releases ranging from dance organizations to governmental entities that use Comic Sans. Short of calling up every public relations person in the coverage area, I don’t know how to get people to STOP using Comic Sans.

It makes me sad. There are so many pretty, professional fonts in the world, but people, for reasons that nobody will ever know, seem drawn to the child-like nature of the font that shall not be named (again).

And with that, I leave you with the following videos:

Despite the “translation” (at times) not being grammatically correct, this is a pretty accurate depiction of how many people feel. Even if the feeling is conveyed via Hitler.

And, if that hasn’t convinced you, check out this little initiative:

*Blogger’s note: This post does not in any way condone anything Hitler has done or advocated for in real life. It is merely a humorous attempt to convey a message about a horrible typeface.

Tips to Survive Journalism without a SmartPhone

1. Keep a computer within arm’s reach at all times. You never know when you’ll have to post something to Twitter or post a breaking news story online. If you’re going to a concert, you better bring that computer. You never know when news will break.

2. Sign up for Twitter mobile for the rare moments you have to separate yourself from your ancient laptop. Nothing says, “professional journalist” like a tweet sent “via txt.”

3. Perfect your speeding skills. Only when you reach the skill of a NASCAR driver will you be able to get back to the office to look up a phone number faster than your competition — who, of course, has a fancy smartphone with internet capabilities — can access the interwebs.

4. Invest in a good voice recorder. Because your cheap, little, pathetic excuse for a phone probably doesn’t have recording capabilities. And if it does, it’s probably only 30 seconds worth of time, which, let’s face it, will never work for covering a board meeting.

5. Keep the passwords for your newspaper’s Twitter account in your memory (or stored in the nifty “notes” part of your dumb phone). That way know the passwords so you can update the Twitter account as soon as you get back to a computer. You probably won’t beat the competition. But hey, you’ll be close, right?