Monday, November 18, 2013

15 Life Lessons I Learned From Being a Daily Newspaper Reporter

141 million people read newspaper content online in September. That’s a lot of people. I want you remember that fact the next time an idiot tells you newspapers are dying.

superman reporter
The world is changing but newspapers, and journalism in general, isn’t going anywhere. I’m no longer a reporter – the 2008 Great Recession sent me packing for the PR world – but I think about my newspaper days at least once a day.

Just after my 21st birthday and about a month after graduating college, I began at The Chronicle, in Willimantic. It was a small daily that served about 15,000 readers in eastern Connecticut and one of the oldest newspapers in the country, printing since 1877. We went to press every weekday at 11 a.m. and every Friday night around 11 p.m. for the weekend edition.

For the rest of my life, both personal and professional, the lessons I learned from those hectic hours every morning, every day, for four straight years will guide me. Let’s a trip, shall we?

1)     Work fast, work smart and there’s no such thing as pressure
When I started at the newspaper, I freaked out. How am I supposed to cover, report and write a 500-word article in 35 minutes? How am I supposed to get any information from the police in the next 5 minutes before deadline? Where is this home in Coventry?!?

Everything crystallized at once in the worst manner possible – a plane had gone down in Groton, and I was sent to cover it. Normally, they wouldn’t send someone to cover a story outside of our circulation area. But I was still part-time at the time, so I was basically an extra reporter, and a plane crash is a big deal.

In a pre-Twitter world, I jumped into my 1989 Grand Am and chased the scene. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what I was going to get. On my way down, there was a driving rainstorm because of course there was a driving rainstorm. The local radio confirmed that a police press conference would take place “at the school by the crash site.” I drove around like mad. I finally found another cop parked outside a Dunkin’ Donuts – insert your joke here – and I eventually found the press conference.

What I realized as I was dictating the story back to my coworker was how routine it seemed until it was over. I was so focused on the job at hand and figuring out a way to make it happen, that I failed to think about the pressure of it all. Or that back in the Willimantic newsroom, the cover of that afternoon’s issue was depending on my success.

If you have confidence in yourself, there is no such thing as pressure.

2)     Deadlines are not to be missed
It has shocked me in my post-newspaper career how deadlines are treated more like guidelines. “This product must be ready by Tuesday!” “Never mind, it’s launching Thursday.” “Just kidding, we’re holding until Monday.”

It would take an act of God for me to miss a deadline, mostly because of the fear of having to tell my editor, “Yeah, that story I promised to you? It’s not done.” It is such a disease that at my previous two jobs, I made a point of setting false deadlines to most people because I knew they would miss them.

That’s horrible. If you hit deadlines, you’ll be a better employee than 90 percent of your co-workers. I promise.

3)     Be prepared for anything
In most walks of life, the unexpected is not that far from the routine. Sure, stuff may come up and your day may be thrown for a loop. But most of the time, you can expect the unexpected to merely be more work.

As a newspaper reporter, the unexpected can take almost literally any form. Every time the phone rings, it could be breaking news. It could be an execution that will finally take place. It could be a murder. It could be a fire, a car accident or a bear running wild in downtown Willimantic. It could be a hot tip about a local government official, it could be the neighborhood gossip with useless information or it could be Richard Blumenthal returning your call.

When one call could send you sprinting off to cover a double homicide, the email from your CEO to spring into action on a press release seems far more doable.

4)     Know something about everything
Useless knowledge comes in handy. For me, I know far too much about colleges thanks to my irrational love of college football. Whenever I meet someone, I know they probably went to college and that college probably has a sports program. Even if it’s just the mascot – oh, TCU, the Horned Frogs, right? – you have an in to speak with someone. It seems so minute and stupid but life is all about relationships, and relationships are built on common grounds.

Furthermore, you have no idea when the information stored in your head actually comes in handy. The world is a strange place and as a reporter, you cover a lot of strange things. For me, my mother’s previous job at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center gave me enough of a background that I was able to have a running start when covering complex issues at another hospital in my coverage area.

You should always be learning. Watching Jeopardy helps. So does reading, I guess.

5)     In-person is better than the phone (and both are better than email)
The world has evolved tremendously since I began my reporting career in 2003. Email was considered unreliable for quotes – how could we know for sure who was on the other end? I still received faxes – honest to goodness, faxes – every day from the State Police. Facebook, Twitter and the like? Yet to be invented. Text messages? Not a chance.

It was always better to interview someone in person. When I needed to chat with the Willimantic Chief of Police on something that wasn’t urgent, I always tried to visit her office. I routinely stopped by the town halls of the local governments I covered. You can delete an email, you can ignore a voice, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid the person standing in the door of your office.

I want you to think about that the next time you email the person next to you. Walking over and saying, “Can you email me that Excel sheet?” is a thousand times more productive than emailing it. And you may talk about something else. And you may get to know that person. Did I mention life is about relationships?

6)     People love to talk, so let them
This is actually a lesson I learned from Communications 101 at the prestigious* George Washington University – ask open-ended questions. If you catch yourself asking more than 1 “yes or no?” question in a row, immediately stop and ask yourself, “What the hell are you doing?”


People, almost to a fault, are ego-maniacs. Look at me, writing 2500 words about myself as if YOU care. Please, this is just about me. Right?

See, I’m just rambling. As most people are wont to do if you give them the opening. It annoys me when people complain about reporters who, instead of asking questions, simply say, “Tell me more about…” This is okay. Getting people to talk is a good thing. It shouldn’t be your only question during a discussion, but you’ll learn so much about what a person does, or does not, know.

If you don’t believe, listen the next time a CEO or executive asks someone else in a conference call – “Tell me more about this project.” You’ll know how much that person knows in about 6 seconds.

7)     Listen, listen, listen
Have you ever been talking to someone, and as you finish your statement, they launch into a story they had queued up in their head since before you started talking? It’s beyond frustrating, right? That person is not listening to you.

Remember what I just wrote about people loving to yap? Well you need to listen to all their nonsense because it usually contains useful information.

As a reporter, it would thrill me to get elected official or business leaders on a rant about something, because they would invariably let something slip – about the topic at hand or something else related. Regardless, it would be a piece of information they didn’t want me to know, but once it was out, it was out.

The most important question you ask will always be a follow-up question. And you need to listen to form those.

8)     You can succeed in life with two fingers on the keyboard
Never listen to anyone who tells you that you need to have all 10 fingers on the keyboard. I type with two fingers. I type exceptionally fast. I type great.

9)     Respect is more important than admiration
Richard Blumenthal, while Connecticut’s Attorney General, always returned my call. We never hung out. We never got drinks. We never had anything beyond a very, very professional relationship. But he always called back, and usually pretty quickly. I’d have to ask him why, but I like to think it’s because he respected my work. He knew I was going to get the story factually correct, there would not be a motive behind it and he respected that.

This became a running joke at my next job, at the Hartford Business Journal, when I was the only one who ever got calls from Blumenthal. The coup de grace came when another reporter left a message with his office and he called me back. Okay, maybe he just enjoyed messing with other people, but I’ll chalk it up to respect.

10)  Always keep a secret
Don’t give up your sources is the journalism equivalent of snitches get stitches. If someone tells you something in confidence, honor that.

11)  Accept the fact you will screw up royally. Likely, more than once
The second assignment I had as a reporter, in my life, was to cover a car that had been found burnt to a crisp in a Willimantic park. Police discovered later that some guy had torched it as a way to get back at his girlfriend. How burning his car accomplished this, I will never know. But on that Thursday afternoon, I was sent out to cover the story and I promptly returned – far too quickly – with a short story that, in hindsight, may have missed some details.

angry newspaper editor
Or as my then-city editor remarked, “What the fuck is this shit? How the fuck am I supposed to run this shit? Fuck!”

There were more swears to follow, but they were just combinations of more common swears. In short, I messed up and badly. I would again. Even in your finest hour, you’re probably going to mess something up.

It was very humbling to realize I was not, in fact, the greatest journalist that ever journalisted. And that’s okay.

12)  Never trust spellcheck
If your form of editing is clicking “spellcheck” and “accept” a few times, you’re doing it wrong. And yes, I’ve made this mistake before and, yes, my then-city editor let me know about it. By the end of my stay at the Chronicle, I prided myself on providing what my new, less ornery city editor would describe as “clean copy.”

Mmm, clean copy. It makes me smile. I visualize the Charmin bear when I say that. You can draw your own parallels for that.

Here’s a free tip: print out what you’ve just written or what you’re editing. It’s better than editing through a computer screen. I can’t explain it. It just is.

13)  Learn how to tell a story
My friends have probably heard the “Bear Story” 100 times. I’ve told it probably 300 times. It gets better every time I tell it. You see, a bear was loose in downtown Willimantic. The state DEP had it cornered in the woods. A 6-foot-3 agent, with muscles upon muscles, a menacing look, a bald head and the voice of a schoolgirl explained they were going to tranquilize the bear. He shot. He hit the bear in the ear. The dart did nothing except royally piss off the bear. The bear escaped and was never found – the DEP assumed he returned back to the woods.

Later that day, while in a McDonald’s finally getting lunch around 3 p.m. following the fiasco, a man saw my reporter’s pad and asked if I had covered the “bear story.” I told him, indeed, I had written the cover story. Within a moment, 6 people – as if it were a scene from a sitcom – crowded ‘round to hang on my every word. That was the first time I told the “bear story.” Hell, I just told it again. It’s better when I’m 4 beers deep and have room to act out the bear’s crazed running. And the old lady who first called in the bear.

14)  The best place to think is in the shower
“He was smarter than your average bear.”

That was the lede to my next-day follow-up on the DEP being unable to catch the bear. While in the shower that morning, I ran through 100 different ledes until I got to that one.

Every morning while you shower, let your mind wander about your day. There is no pressure there. There is only the eternal optimism of the day ahead. Even if you know you’re in store for the shittiest day ever, the shower is a brief, blissful reprieve.

And if you want to get in some bars of Katy Perry, no one needs to know.

15)  Never stop writing, ever
reporter typingPeople ask why I have a blog and why I write so much. This answer is self-explanatory, no? Writing dominates our lives. Every email we compose, every Facebook status we update, every Twitter tweet we tweet and every text we send, we are always writing.

We are writing for work. We are writing for fun. We are writing cover letters to future bosses. We are writing love letters to our significant others. We are writing missives about New Girl. We are writing.

The trouble with writing? Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice only makes you a little bit better.

16)  Brevity
Oops, never mind. I’ll touch on this in my next 2,500-word post on lessons I didn't learn from my newspaper days.

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2 comments:

  1. Just ran across this post and loved it. Especially the editor's reaction to your report on the car fire. And yes, the shower IS definitely the best place to think of a lede.

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  2. I don't agree with all of them, but certainly many of them. Number 1 is as true in public relations - and every other business - as in the news media. And I laughed at Number 6 because people love to talk about themselves, if only someone would ask them ... I got a lot of stories that way. And in public relations, this is also how I have got to know many top journalists.

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