I’m Katie, a journalist and recent graduate from LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. I’m in the midst of hunting for my first full-time job, and sifting through job listings and learning through trial-and-error has me reflecting on what I’ve learned from my previous journalism experiences.
In August, I returned home after 10 weeks of reporting with the News21 program. Research and initial reporting for the program began in January, but things picked up in earnest when the team of 38 journalists and five editors gathered in Phoenix to report from the program’s home base at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
News21 is a national investigative reporting program dedicated to training the next generation of journalists. The program was founded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It’s supported by the Knight Foundation and partner universities from the United States, Canada and Ireland who nominate students for the program. Each year, News21 selects an in-depth topic to explore. Previous topics include gun rights, voting rights, marijuana and water safety. This year’s topic was hate crimes.
I’m thankful for my News21 experience this summer and proud of the work we did. I was surrounded by talented reporters, and it’s difficult not to be excited about the possibilities of the profession when collaborating with creative, enthusiastic and hardworking reporters. Each person had different talents and working styles and I learned a lot about myself and my potential working alongside them.
Here’s what I learned.
It’s cliché, but teamwork makes the dream work. A project like News21 wouldn’t be possible without the effort and dedication of each team member. We were divided into teams of three to seven people, and each team was responsible for identifying and contacting sources, identifying their story’s overall vision, planning and booking travel, producing multimedia content (photos, video, audio, social media posts, etc.) and producing a final story. There were 11 issue-focused teams, and additional teams for social media, the program’s documentary, podcasts and website design, among others.
Working on a large team is a valuable learning opportunity.
— You learn to manage different personalities and work styles. You have to accept that not everyone is going to approach work the same way. To make sure it works, have an agreed upon set of standards and expectations for the whole group.
— Organization is critical. Utilize Google Drive and similar tools to the fullest. Make sure to put everything in writing to keep organized, whether it’s notes, outlines, team assignments, etc. so you can track the progress of the story and the team’s goals. Task management applications like Trello or Asana, or office communication tools like Slack, can help with this.
— It’s important to communicate effectively. If the team isn’t on the same page, nothing is going to get accomplished. Make sure relevant messages are shared with everyone at the same time. Be direct when you communicate and always make sure to clarify details. Just because you assume something is clear doesn’t mean it is. Effective communication also includes speaking to everyone with respect, even if there’s a disagreement.
Fieldwork requires flexibility, determination and planning.
— Be able to adjust to changing circumstances. There are going to be problems, but you’ll have to find a way to solve them. Sometimes sources cancel, attending an event doesn’t yield the results you hoped for or you forget a necessary piece of equipment. Take a second to feel upset or frustrated, but then take a deep breath and game plan a solution. It’s okay to need help, so call your editor if you need.
— Be persistent, but also exercise patience. Contacting sources can require several tries, including sending emails, making phone calls and messaging on social media. It’s important to follow up, but also remember that your sources are real people with real lives. They have their own priorities, and you’re likely not at the top of the list. At the end of the day, don’t let yourself become discouraged if sources don’t pan out. Not every source is going to be willing to speak to you, and that’s just the way things typically go. It’s the nature of the business.
— Make a checklist for yourself. It’s easy to forget what you need to accomplish when you’re on a limited timetable and traveling between locations.
— In the same vein, don’t underestimate how long things take. Shooting stills and b-roll will always take longer than expected. Make sure to build dedicated time into your schedule to accomplish these tasks and capture the best footage to avoid a rush job. I completely underestimated this during trip planning, and we ended up running across New Orleans one hour before sunset shooting b-roll. (Bless Megan Ross’s soul).
— Always keep in mind that there are people at the heart of every issue. They’re taking their time to share with you potentially emotional experiences. Recognize their humanity.
Executing the story takes creativity and compromise.
— Be able to pivot. Your editors may call you and ask you to scrap your entire draft and start over. It’s important to take their feedback, recognize how things need to progress and make the necessary changes. While you might feel married to a certain vision for the story, don’t lose the forest for the trees. Make sure to think about the bigger picture and learn to accept that not all the details you like can make it into the story. This happened to us a couple times.
— Be an expert (or strongly knowledgeable) on every facet of your story. You’ll need to explain details to editors and others who don’t have the understanding of the topic you do. You’ve been speaking to sources and researching the story over time, so make sure you can effectively present that knowledge.
— Think outside the box. The story my co-reporters and I worked on began at about 5,000 words and ended around 3,000. Making changes to a story that length can be difficult on a computer. To speed the process, we printed the story, cut it into chunks based on section and then laid the story out on a table. We then executed a paper edit, like in audio or documentary editing, and physically moved the different sections, completely changing the arrangement of our story. Being able to move the pieces by hand saved us hours and allowed us to more easily identify potential changes.
— Be your own editor. As noted above, our story was long. In the middle of editing, we had to cut our story almost in half. Killing your baby is difficult, but it’s a little easier when you’re the one to do it. You’re personally invested in the story and know what you’re willing to lose, so do yourself a favor and make suggested cuts to present to your editor. It also saves everybody time, which is always a good thing!
Finally, I learned what I don’t know.
— I’m primarily a writer, and though I have some experience with iPhone photo and video work, I haven’t had formal training on a DSLR camera. Despite being a visual person, photography wasn’t on my radar growing up and I never made an effort to learn as a teenager. Watching the photojournalists in our group work their magic was incredible. They captured powerful images. They were skillful in the field, had a clear vision and were always professional. Seeing how their photographs enhanced the overall story and added layers to our project’s storytelling ability inspired me to learn more. I’m currently teaching myself on a Nikon D3100 borrowed from my cousin and using Henry Carroll’s “Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs” to learn the basics. It was recommended by friend and fellow News21 reporter Lenny Martinez Dominguez.
— I also learned some of the basics of audio work. I grew in my understanding of where microphones need to be placed, became more aware of background noises and interference, and have a greater understanding of the importance of maintaining an organized system for audio files (lost audio can disrupt project plans, yikes!). Podcasting has become a popular element in many multimedia newsrooms, and even a little exposure showed me the possibilities of audio.
— Lastly, I grew more in my understanding of data and public records, which I really appreciate. It’s become a central part of the reporting toolkit for all reporters and having more opportunities to exercise those skills was beneficial.
News21 was an exceptional program and helped me become a better reporter. I’ll forever be grateful for the experience and for the people I met. They were funny, original, intelligent, hardworking, creative, kind and attentive, all the things you could want in a reporter and a friend. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m proud to be among the News21 alumni working across the country.