I will be meeting this evening with some journalism students at the University of Kentucky. As I pulled together career advice to share with them, I thought I should share it on my blog as well. Whether you are a student or a professional journalist, I recommend checking out Joe Grimm’s Jobs Page and his Poynter Ask the Recruiter blog. I also recommend my earlier post on building your digital profile.
The advice that follows combines and updates handouts I developed years ago for workshops for reporters and editors on boosting their careers:
Wherever you are as a journalist and wherever you want to go, you can elevate your career by working on personal development. Editors, colleagues and training programs will help you move to a higher level, but nothing will help as much as your own commitment to improvement. As training consultant Alan Weiss notes, if you can improve by just 1 percent each day, you will be twice as good a journalist in 70 days (do the math; it’s a compounding-interest thing).
Where do you want your career to take you? Perhaps you are worried that you will never get a job in this declining industry. Perhaps you want to leave your current organization and chase your dream job. Perhaps you want to get out of your current position and chase a better job at your current organization. Perhaps you want to grow in your current beat and become the authority in this community or in our industry on this topic. Maybe you’re open to any of those possibilities and more. Clarify your ambitions, at least in your own mind, and decide what steps might move you toward a goal.
Set goals. Even if you’re flexible about the paths you might take, consider where you’d like to be in a year or two or five. Look at the others who are where you want to go. What skills do they have? What experience do they have? What personal characteristics do they have (you might need to ask them some of these questions; you’ll find that most journalists are eager to help colleagues)? What skills, experience or personal characteristics might make you better than they are? What connections have helped their careers? What connections can/should you develop to help enhance your opportunities? Opportunities or changed interests might take you in different directions, but you will always benefit from setting and pursuing goals.
Take responsibility for your own growth. Ideally, your bosses will pay some or all of the costs of conferences, seminars or university courses that will help you grow. If they don’t, you still need to grow. Invest the time or money it takes to grow into the kind of reporter you want to be.
Examine, increase your digital value
Even though print and broadcast operations still provide most of the revenue of media companies, the growth for established media companies will be in digital audience and digital revenues. And most startups will be all digital or digital-first. So whatever your primary interests and skills, you need to take a hard look at your digital skills and value and develop a plan to increase and emphasize your digital value to your current employer and/or prospective employers.
Think digital. Early on every assignment, consider how to tell your story better for digital platforms. Think of ways to make the online presentation interactive, to provide more detailed information online. Consider whether you should liveblog as an event unfolds. Does the story present opportunities to use video, audio or data in creative ways to tell the story? Develop some multi-media skills, so you can deliver or contribute to multi-media story packages that every editor wishes more reporters could and would do. File breaking stories and updates swiftly to the web and mobile platforms. Consider how your can “crowd-source” to invite the community to help you tell a story. If you aren’t thoroughly wired yet, take Howard Owens’ challenge (he wrote it in 2008, but the challenges remain for too many journalists) and add to your digital toolbox.
Master social media. You don’t have to like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other social media tools. But you do have to learn to use them. And the better you are at using them, the more valuable you will be to your organization and to prospective employers. Use them to gather information, to connect with possible sources and to deliver content to the community.
Master multi-tasking. We need journalists who specialize in important and difficult skills. But more and more, as large organizations reduce their staffs and as small start-up operations provide the new jobs in journalism, versatility is growing in value. Don’t consider (or market) yourself as a reporter, editor or photojournalist. Master multiple skills and use them to improve your journalism and increase your value. If reporting is your passion, you will have a better chance to do meaningful reporting if you also have some video skills.
Develop your data skills. How strong are your computer-assisted reporting skills? Have you stopped after learning a few basics, such as Internet searching and simple spreadsheets? Have you even mastered those basics? Learn a new program or a new way to use the programs you’re using. Ask in each story what data sources might help tell the story. Learn what you need to know to obtain and analyze the data. If you’ve passed on learning many computer skills, it’s time you moved into the 21st Century. You wouldn’t pretend to be a complete reporter if you don’t know how to search for basic paper records. Most information today is stored as data, and you need to learn how to find information to remain competent. If you are using data tools for analysis, consider taking the next step and turning your work into an interactive database for your web site.
Understand your business. We are past the days when journalists can blithely pursue journalism ignorant of business considerations. You do need to maintain ethical independence, but understand how your business works. Share suggestions with bosses and with colleagues in other departments when you have ideas that might help your company. Or pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, especially if the companies you want to work for aren’t hiring. You may demonstrate your value to the companies you want to work for (or find an unexpected career path in a different direction) by proving your ability in an entrepreneurial venture. Read my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection to see a possible direction the industry might be headed. Add your own suggestions to the discussion.
Blog. Whether for work or on your own, you need to blog. Become a voice in the digital conversation. Link to the work you like and say something insightful enough that people start linking to you.
Improve your skills
Master numbers. Lots of journalists hate math and aren’t very good at it. But it’s important. Numbers can reveal some important stories. Reporters’ and editors’ incompetence with numbers can allow officials to obscure their own incompetence or malfeasance. Master budgets and tax formulas. Learn the difference between mean and median, between percent and percentage points.
Learn another language. Learn Spanish or another language that immigrants in your community speak. If you learned a language in college and forgot most of it as the years passed, brush up. As our nation grows more diverse, bilingual reporters will grow increasingly valuable.
Learn new programs. Whether you’re a reporter, editor or photojournalist, you should always be learning new computer programs that can help you do your job better. If you haven’t used Flash, Final Cut Pro, Access or another program, try your hand with it, ask a friend to show you how to use it or take a class to help you get started. And once you learn the new skill, be sure to use it regularly, so you remain fresh.
Address a weakness. Assess your skills critically. Identify a weakness. Find resources to help you improve in this area. Seek criticism and suggestions from colleagues who excel at this skill. Concentrate on this skill in every story. Turn this skill into a strength.
Work on improving one skill each assignment. You can set lofty and long-distance goals, such as wanting to become a better storyteller or wanting to become an investigative reporter or mastering video skills. Reach those goals by setting short-term goals, such as developing characters well on today’s story, diligently checking records for tomorrow’s story or making sure that you shoot some good B roll for today’s video.
Improve your reporting
Generate your own story ideas. Don’t just react to events or accept editors’ assignments. Always have a list of stories you want to work on. Refresh the list regularly. When you cover an event, consider what follow-up angles you should pursue. You still will have to react to events. You still will want to take the good assignments that come your way and you might have to take some lame assignments as well. But you’ll get fewer of the lame assignments if you’re working on better stories already.
Prospect. Get out of the office and “prospect” for some new sources. Drop in on someone on your beat or in your community that you don’t know. Learn about her job, tell her about yours and learn how she might help you in future stories. Ask her what you should be writing about.
Diversify your sources. Reporters who “round up the usual suspects” in their stories blend in with the pack. Reporters stand out when they interview sources who vary by race, ethnicity, gender, occupation and experience. You will write more lively, more interesting and more accurate stories if you diversify your sources. Recognize that experts are not just officials and scholars, but parents, residents, voters, commuters, students and consumers.
Find the silent voices. Find people who are usually silent, such as sexual abuse victims, refugees or closeted gays who fear consequences if they speak out. Tell their stories, even if you have to protect their identities.
Crowdsource. Use tools such as Twitter, Facebook, your blog or your organization’s web site to ask what people know about topics you are covering. You still need to verify, of course, but you will develop new sources and gather information you might not have found as quickly (or at all) without asking.
Explore your community. Visit a part of your community you haven’t seen in a while. Or ever. Find some people to talk to who might be sources. Find some story ideas, if not for your beat, then for some colleagues.
Spend more time with documents. Learn your state open-records law and the federal Freedom of Information Act. Always consider what documents might help bolster a story. Ask for private documents, too. If someone says no, consider who else might have the records you want, or whether they might be available online. On every story, ask yourself who would have some pertinent records and see if you can obtain them. They won’t always add much to your story, but occasionally you’ll pick up a few helpful details. Or maybe you’ll uncover another story altogether.
Follow the money. Learn where the agencies and organizations you cover have to file financial reports. Learn how to read them. When important decisions are made, ask who will profit from these decisions and see if you can show how they profited. See if you can show how they might have influenced the decisions. Following the money is never a waste of your time. Even if it doesn’t produce a story right now, it will produce understanding that will help you in the future.
Volunteer for the big breaking story. When the story of the year, or even the story of the month, breaks, ask the editors if they need any help. Even if the story is on someone else’s beat or someone else has already taken the lead role, you will enjoy having a piece of the action. You will get a chance to watch some of your paper’s best reporters work and a chance to learn from them. And the editors will remember how you helped. Maybe next time they will give you that leading role. Or at least a bigger supporting part.
Do more enterprise stories. Even if you’re on a beat with heavy daily demands, try to devote your first hour every day (or, if that doesn’t work for your particular beat, the first hour after lunch) to making progress on an enterprise story. Show more enterprise on daily stories: Check public records or Internet resources to verify or refute claims officials make; call academic experts to provide context to a controversy or interview the people affected by an issue to show the human impact.
National context. You can add depth to stories by remembering to place them in a national context. Is your situation the best, worst or first in the country? Does it illustrate (or buck or lag behind) a trend? Might solutions in another city work in your city? Might problems in another community provide a warning for yours?
Follow up. One of our weaknesses as a business is that we’re too often hit-and-run reporters. Use your Outlook calendar or another technique to remind you to check up on stories and see how they came out.
Write with authority. Reduce attribution where you can find out for sure what the facts are. Writing with authority is more a matter of reporting than writing, though. First you have to know authoritatively what the story is.
Think visually. If you are a reporter, your stories will get better play and win more attention from editors, colleagues and readers if you take more initiative in generating eye-catching photos, graphics, videos and multimedia elements. Don’t let visual elements be an afterthought. As you write story proposals or discuss story ideas with your editors, discuss photo and graphic possibilities. Insist on coordinating early and often with the art, photo and design departments. However well you dig up facts and choose words, a strong photo draws the reader’s eye to your story and an interactive graphic can help someone understand.
Zig when others zag. When you find yourself running with the pack, take a moment to consider what the pack might be missing. If everyone is looking to the right, look to the left, at least briefly. You can usually catch up with the pack pretty quickly if you don’t find an exclusive. The pack isn’t hard to find. But you won’t find the exclusive without leaving the pack. Sometimes the pack is really on the big story. But if you always follow the pack, all you will have is the same story as everyone else.
Improve your writing
Spell out story ideas. Don’t just talk about story ideas. Write them out. A detailed proposal helps your editors start to envision the story and builds anticipation for the story. A detailed proposal also helps you start focusing the story.
Write as you report. Start writing earlier in the process on each story. Write at the idea stage, after your first interview and as you go along. The writing will focus and improve the reporting that remains and you will have more time to rewrite.
Use Twitter. Beyond the value of Twitter for gathering and reporting news and connecting with sources, your writing will improve as you learn to make points in just 140 characters. In fact, try cutting and pasting your leads into the Twitter window (you don’t have to tweet them). A lead that’s too long for a tweet is probably too long for your story.
Use story elements. Make your story more than just a string of facts. Give it a plot, some characters, a setting, a conflict, a resolution, a climax, a theme. OK, maybe your editors won’t give you enough space to develop all those elements in tomorrow’s story. But decide which are the most important elements and develop those.
Try new story forms. If you haven’t written a narrative, watch for a story that lends itself to narration and try your hand at it. Or if you haven’t done a series, consider what story on your beat demands the in-depth treatment of a series. Ask whether a particular story might lend itself to a creative approach that defies labels.
Try alternate story forms. Your work will stand out if you develop the ability to tell stories in forms other than the traditional string of related paragraphs. Work with artists, designers and editors to tell stories through graphics, grids, games and other forms that demonstrate your creativity and your ability to adapt to changing story forms and changing reader expectations.
Use quotes sparingly. Heavy use of quotes often is a mark of pedestrian writing. Show more confidence in your own writing. Paraphrase when you can state something better than a character. You accent your strongest quotes when they stand out from the rest of the story, rather than seeming like one in a string of weak quotes. Use quotes for dialogue, emotion or opinion, not for information.
Read aloud. Read your stories aloud. You will find and fix long sentences, clunky passages, awkward phrases. You will understand the voice and flow of your story.
Emphasize rewriting. Few skills are as valuable or as neglected as rewriting. If your rewriting now is a quick fact-check and a quick run through the copy to slap on a little polish, allow more time for rewriting. Go through the story one more time a bit more slowly. Challenge the verbs. Cut or paraphrase dull quotes. Condense or break up long sentences. Sharpen story elements. Find the right word to turn a good line into a memorable line. Spend your last few minutes before you turn the copy in raising your standards and demanding more of your work. Even if you’re tweeting or liveblogging, take a look at your tweet or post before hitting “update” and see if you can improve by changing a word or two (or if you can catch a mistake made in haste).
Tighten your copy. Whether you are writing a short story or a long one, make every word count. Challenge each sentence, each word. Use strong, active verbs. If you have to cut the story, regard it as raising your standards. Yes, you could (and already did) write a terrific 30-inch story on this topic. But the editors only have room for 20 inches, so only the best 20 inches make it into this story.
Challenge your best work. You don’t get better just by improving your weaknesses and holding your routine stories to some minimal standards. You also have to challenge your very best stories and make them better.
Challenge your leads. Always challenge your lead. Even if you love it. Especially if you love it. Ask whether you can squeeze a word out. Then another. Ask whether you can find a stronger verb, a more specific noun. Try a completely different approach. If the lead is longer than 20 words, see if you can write one that’s shorter than 10. Sometimes an outstanding lead will withstand all challenges. You will feel better knowing that it did.
Analyze your best work. When you write a story or produce a video you’re really proud of, review the techniques you used. Why did they work? How might you use the same techniques on other upcoming stories?
Get a passport. Your paper may never send you abroad for a big story. But get a passport anyway. You don’t want that big foreign assignment to go to someone else because you don’t have a current passport when your paper needs to move quickly.
Read old clips. Read in your library, both the electronic library and the old hard-copy clip files, about important issues and events on your beat and in your community. Your sources and readers know some of that history. Your questions and stories will reflect your greater knowledge of background and context.
Explore the library. Spend a half hour in your newsroom library, finding some resources you didn’t know were available and reminding yourself of some resources you had forgotten. Consider how you might use each resource in a story.
Explore the Web. Poke around the web sites of the agencies you cover and the organizations that monitor them. Learn what records are posted online and how current they are. Do some Google, Lexis-Nexis, Factiva or public records searches on people, organizations and issues you cover and find other sites that might be helpful. Deep familiarity with the web resources on your beat always pays off.
Read the best. Read the work of reporters whose work you admire. Read prize-winning stories. Analyze the writers’ techniques. Consider how they got their information. Consider how they got their story ideas. Read the Best Newspaper Writing series, not just the winning stories themselves, but the interviews in which they say how they did it. Call or e-mail the reporters and ask about the reporting and writing techniques that produced the stories. Check out the Pulitzer Prize winners’ work (and other award winners) and study what made it so good.
Be a newsroom leader
Mentor a colleague. Share your advice and experience with a colleague who has less experience. You don’t have to be a know-it-all. But if you see a story with a hole that you know how to fill, offer the advice in a spirit of cooperation. The colleague probably will appreciate it and your relationship will develop. Colleagues and bosses will notice this contribution to the newsroom. And you will learn from the colleague as you teach.
Share your experience. Develop a workshop for your staff in a skill you have mastered. When you overcome a writing or reporting challenge of which you’re proud, tell colleagues what you did, not in a boastful look-what-I-did way, but maybe you’re highlighting what a jerk the source was who denied you the records. The secondary part of the story is how you got them anyway. Write up a tip sheet. Develop some points, examples and exercises to help colleagues learn the skill in a workshop. Talk to the person who is responsible for training in your newsroom and volunteer to present a workshop to your staff. Send the handout to me and I’ll post it, with credit, on the Web at No Train, No Gain.
Pass tips to colleagues. When you see or hear something that would be a good story for a colleague, pass it along. They won’t do all the stories you suggest, but they will appreciate the tips. Some of them will pass tips along to you, resulting in good stories for you. Pass along how-to tips as well. If you find a valuable Web site, let colleagues know. If you used a creative technique to find some information, tell a friend. Join a Wired Journalists group of colleagues who cover the same topic. When someone asks for help on a matter where you have experience, give some advice. You don’t have to hold forth as though you’re the fount of all wisdom. But if you share your knowledge and ideas, your respect among colleagues will grow.
Don’t wait to lead. Even if you are a student or a recent college graduate, you can start leading in your news staff. Of course, you still have much to learn from colleagues with more experience and you should learn from them respectfully. But you may have experience with social media or other digital skills that you can share with colleagues, too.
Promote yourself. You can tell editors and colleagues of your accomplishments without becoming annoying and boastful. If you’ve beaten the competition on a story, be sure to tell your editors. That may affect the play on a story and it certainly will affect their view of you. If your story forces some changes by the agency you cover, tell your editors and discuss whether the changes merit a story. Even if they don’t, the editors will note the impact you’ve had.
Lead in your newsroom. Does your newsroom have a committee that is considering newsroom reorganization or policies on issues such as technology, innovation or ethics? Serve on the committee. The work may be frustrating at times. Committees always are. And don’t assume the editors will adopt all your ideas. But you can make a difference. And your leadership will be noticed. Consider other ways you can lead: perhaps by speaking up directly to editors about matters that concern you or by organizing a brownbag lunch to discuss a current issue in journalism.
Fill in as an editor. If you want to become an editor someday, volunteer to fill in on the desk, on weekends or during vacations. Volunteer for a short stint on the pagination or copy desks, so you learn more about how the paper is produced and sharpen your editing skills. Even if you don’t want to become an editor, a stint on the copy desk will help you develop stronger news judgment and help in editing your own copy. Either way, working the desk for a while will give you a broader view of the newsroom mission and operation.
Don’t let obstacles become excuses. You probably already have a mindset of pursuing the big story undaunted by obstacles. That is part of every journalist’s DNA. Turn that same attitude on the obstacles to innovation and career development.
Learn from others
Seek a mentor. Look around your newsroom. Identify a colleague who has a skill, work habit or writing style that you admire and would like to emulate. Offer to take her out to lunch. Pick her brain. Learn how she developed that skill. Follow up by asking about individual stories, photos or videos (yours or hers) that illustrate the point you have discussed. Perhaps your mentor might be a colleague who has mastered your beat at another newspaper. Seek advice by phone and e-mail or connect in person at a workshop or conference.
Use a writing coach. If your staff has a writing coach, seek advice regularly. If not, I’m always happy to consult about individual stories or about general reporting and writing challenges. I might not have the answers, but I can seek them from other colleagues or we can brainstorm about where we might find them or about techniques you might try.
Find a “guide” on your beat. The guide is not a source or at least not a primary source. The guide might be a reader or a former source on the beat. The guide still will have a perspective that you must learn and keep in mind. Any guide who knows enough to be helpful has to have biases. But the guide usually doesn’t have a direct stake. Go to the guide early to learn context, background, jargon and process. Ask the guide about characters and conflicts. New issues might present or require new guides.
Attend training programs. Ask your editors to send you to training programs of your state press association or other groups, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors, that offer regional training. Even if the company won’t send you, these low-cost workshops are a great investment in your own career and your own future. Watch also for national training opportunities. Don’t assume your company won’t send you to an expensive Poynter Institute or American Press Institute seminar. And watch for national training programs that offer fellowships that cover some or all expenses. Take some of the free and low-cost webinars and self-directed courses at News University.
Follow up on training. Whether you attend a national conference or a workshop in your newsroom, be sure to follow up. Make the training stick by deciding how you will apply the lessons to expand and improve your own skills. After the workshop, decide what points were most relevant to your current situation and what steps you need to take to improve your skills. Set your calendar to review after a month and after three months how you are doing in this improvement plan. If the workshop taught a skill that’s entirely new to you, such as using an unfamiliar program for computer-assisted reporting, start using that program immediately after returning to the newsroom, or the lessons will grow stale quickly.
Connect with other reporters. Join IRE and/or an organization of reporters sharing your beat. Many journalism organizations do an excellent job of training members at annual or even regional conferences. Many operate web sites, list-servs, Twitter feeds or social networks that help journalists connect to share ideas, seek help and learn from each other. Join the organizations or e-mail lists that look the most helpful to you. Even if your newspaper doesn’t pay the costs, you should consider investing in your career by attending conferences.
Some organizations by journalism specialty:
- American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors
- American Copy Editors Society
- American Society of News Editors
- Associated Press Managing Editors
- Associated Press Sports Editors
- Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors
- Association of Food Journalists
- Association of Health Care Journalists
- Criminal Justice Journalists
- Education Writers Association
- Football Writers Association of America
- Investigative Reporters and Editors
- National Association of Science Writers
- National Press Photographers Association
- National Society of Newspaper Columnists
- Online News Association
- Religion Newswriters Association
- Society for News Design
- Society of American Business Editors and Writers
- Society of American Travel Writers
- Society of Environmental Journalists
- U.S. Basketball Writers Association
Consider a new assignment. Maybe a new beat or a different assignment would give you a chance to learn and use new skills, to learn more about your community. Identify positions that might help you grow and apply for one when it comes open. Prepare yourself for that pitch however you can. For instance, if you are a reporter interested in a particular beat, prepare by reading stories on that beat closely and by collaborating with the current reporter on a story if that’s appropriate.
Energize your current assignment. If you’ve been in the same position for a few years, maybe you need to energize it by approaching it like a new job. Write up a beat coverage plan, for instance, if you are a beat reporter. Come up with a list of story ideas. Talk to some consumers, voters, parents or whoever the “real people” are on your beat. Learn their concerns. Ask them what you should be writing about. Find some officials or observers on your beat that you haven’t met before, or haven’t spent enough time with. Learn their perspective. Ask them for story ideas. Find some files you haven’t examined and see if some stories might be hiding there.
Develop your niche. Sometimes advancement comes not from changing positions but from elevating your position. Become the authority in your community, in your state or in the business at your beat. If you love your job, make it unthinkable to your bosses that they would ever move you. You have to beware of complacency, though, once you become the authority. Make sure you keep learning.
Never say no for someone else. Your editors will tell you no sometimes ─ when you are seeking a new position, when you want to become a columnist, editor or investigative reporter, when you want to do a special project that requires a considerable commitment of time or money, when you want to attend a national conference or training program, when you want to acquire an expensive piece of photo equipment. Sources will tell you no sometimes ─ when you ask tough questions or seek an interview at a difficult time or request confidential (or sometimes even public) records. Organizations will tell you no sometimes ─ when you seek a fellowship to a special training program or inclusion in a special program. Make them say no. Never assume you won’t get the fellowship, the interview, the records, the foreign trip, the big story, the promotion or the lens. Ask or apply. Maybe they will say yes. Maybe they will say no. But they won’t say yes if you don’t ask.
Grow. Even if you’re experienced. However good you are, someone else is better and you can be better. Identify one way that you could improve and then identify immediate challenges to help you grow in that respect. Then do it again. And again.
Choose your fights carefully. Editors tune out the staff member who’s always whining about story length, photo size or assignments or whatever the reporter/photographer/artist is whining about. Accept that no job is perfect. Analyze what’s really essential for your job and carry out those tasks with little or no complaint. Weigh your story or photo against the others that your paper will be running that day and consider how much space it’s worth. If you fight only about what’s really important, your complaint will carry more weight and you will win more of the really important fights.
Be enthusiastic, candid, honest, reliable. Personal characteristics count. You may be a hell of a photographer. But if you whine a lot, editors will tune you out. If you give full effort only on the assignments you like, editors will have justifiable doubts about you. If you lie to editors or sources, the lies will catch up to you. If you say one thing to your editor’s face and something else behind her back, she will find out eventually.
Accept responsibility. You will make mistakes, either errors that appear in print or stories that you miss or stories you can’t nail down. Accept responsibility. Submit corrections. Tell your editors what you will do to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Editors will remember your sense of responsibility (or your lack of responsibility) longer than they will remember the mistake.
Apologize. You will offend editors, colleagues and sources at times with sarcasm, temper, lack of consideration or any number of other ways. Deadline pressure, difficult stories, competition and the aggressive attitude that journalism requires inevitably lead to some bruised feelings. Apologize. You don’t want hard feelings to fester and hold back your career development.
Stay positive in difficult times. Newsrooms go through many difficult times ─ staff cuts, buyouts, new owners, hiring freezes, pay freezes, pay cuts, furloughs, staff mergers, staff reorganizations, new duties (often without additional pay), tyrannical editors, annoying corporate policies, big stories that go on for weeks and wear on everyone’s nerves. Stay positive. This is fun, exciting work. Remember that. Focus on the fun. You can’t ignore the unpleasant situation. But you can choose not to wallow in it.
Keep the boss informed. Learn how your editor likes to communicate and keep her informed of your activities and plans (or of your staff’s work, if you’re a supervisor). Does she like an occasional personal briefing, an e-mail, a personal briefing followed by an e-mail, a personal briefing accompanied by a budget on paper of stories coming up? Don’t bury your boss in detail, but don’t catch her off guard either. If the boss likes written communication, keep it tight. If you wonder whether some details are necessary, offer to tell more but don’t include everything in the note.
Be candid. Bosses and colleagues alike expect honesty and openness from you. You can be candid and still be tactful. While candor will lead to some bruised feelings and some uncomfortable moments, it builds trust. And trust will advance your career.
Control your anger. Colleagues, bosses and work situations will make you angry. Especially if you are a mid-level editors, you will often feel caught in the middle. Address issues candidly but respectfully in both directions. Especially avoid expressing anger in writing. It may feel good, but your message will last longer than your anger.
Use humor. A journalist with a good sense of humor adds to the fun of the news business. But beware of sarcasm, especially if you are a supervisor. Your staff will be sarcastic toward you and you may feel like responding in kind. But sarcasm from the boss cuts deeper. Be careful.
Praise your peers. You’re part of a team. Praise colleagues who are serving readers well. Thank them for helping you and you’ll get more help from them in the future.
Show interest in the budget. Budgets are boring. They also help you cover the news and help your newsroom reach its goals. Learn as much as your bosses will tell you about the budget. If you are a supervisor, volunteer to help in the budgeting process, even if this isn’t yet part of your responsibilities. Your knowledge of the budget and interest in it will add to your qualifications when top managers are considering promotions to a level that involves more budgeting.
Seek solutions in conflict. Personalities, competition, turf battles and deadline pressure will lead to conflicts in the newsroom. Some may involve you. Set aside emotion and seek solutions. If you’re involved, listen respectfully to the other person and work together to find the solution that best serves the reader. If you’re not involved, ask whether you might help find a solution as a neutral third party.
Encourage and challenge your staff
If you are a supervisor, much of your professional development will be tied to the development and performance of your staff. So you need to work hard to help your staff learn, grow and thrive.
Praise good work. Every newsroom supervisor should make a top daily priority of praising the good work of your staff. If someone on your staff has served your readers well today, you should praise the story, headline, photo, design or action. Make your praise specific, prompt and sincere. Praise face-to-face in most instances. Special occasions might merit a handwritten note of praise. Editors who recognize and appreciate good work from their staff invariably get more good work from their staff. Nothing advances your career more than good work from your staff.
Encourage new story forms. If a reporter hasn’t written a narrative, watch for a story that lends itself to narration and encourage him to try. Or if a reporter hasn’t done a series, help her develop plans for a story that demands the in-depth treatment of a series. Ask whether a particular story might lend itself to a creative approach that defies labels. If reporters haven’t tried alternate story forms or multimedia stories, watch for opportunities to develop these skills.
Encourage authoritative writing. Challenge reporters to reduce attribution where possible by finding out for sure what the facts are. Writing with authority is more a matter of reporting than writing, though. First reporters have to know authoritatively what the story is.
Encourage reporters to zig when others zag. When a reporter is running with the pack, ask what the pack might be missing. If everyone is looking to the right, encourage the reporter to look to the left, at least briefly. She can usually catch up with the pack pretty quickly if she doesn’t find an exclusive. But she won’t find the exclusive without leaving the pack and without an editor with the confidence to go after a better story. Sometimes the pack is really on the big story. But if your reporters always follow the pack, all you will have is the same story as everyone else. Reporters who come up with exclusives have editors who trust the reporter’s instincts and risk letting the reporter leave the pack.
Respect reporters’ authorship. However much you enjoy writing and however good you are at it, it’s not your job. Editors who insist on rewriting reporters’ stories themselves generate resentment and disloyalty in their staff. And they don’t end up with better stories. The reporter knows the information and the story better than you do. Challenge her to improve the story. When deadlines or other circumstances force you to rewrite, respect and retain the author’s voice.
Challenge instead of criticizing. Rather than criticizing staff members, give them specific challenges to help improve their performance. Don’t tell a reporter his writing is dull. Challenge him to use stronger verbs in tomorrow’s story or to find a real person who will illustrate the problem.
Develop story elements. Expect stories that are more than just a string of facts. As the reporter is working on the story, ask what the conflict is and how it will be resolved. Ask about the plot, characters, setting and theme. Ask for stories with dialogue and scenes.
Read aloud. Encourage reporters to read stories aloud. This will help them find and fix long sentences, clunky passages, awkward phrases. They will understand the voice and flow of your story. As reporters are working on drafts, stop by and ask them to read a passage aloud to you.
Emphasize rewriting. Few skills are as valuable or as neglected as rewriting. When you’re setting deadlines and planning stories, ask when the reporter will finish the first draft and how much time he’s allowing for rewriting. Rather than fixing the story yourself, identify some weak verbs, long sentences and organizational problems and have the reporter do the rewriting.
Challenge leads. Ask whether the reporter has challenged the lead. Even if you both love it. Especially if you love it. Ask whether the reporter can squeeze a word out. Then another. Ask whether you can find a stronger verb, a more specific noun. Encourage a completely different approach. If the lead is longer than 20 words, challenge the reporter to write one that’s shorter than 10. Sometimes an outstanding lead will withstand all challenges. You will feel better knowing that it did.
Develop self-starters. Your staff will perform better, and show off your leadership skills better, if you develop and respect self-starters. Don’t just give assignments. Ask reporters for their ideas. Expect reporters to develop lists of story ideas to pursue. Value their ideas, even if they conflict with your ideas or your bosses’ ideas.
Analyze the best work. When a staff member produces a video, story or graphic you’re really proud of, review with him the techniques he used. Why did they work? How might he use the same techniques on other upcoming stories? Might he teach this technique to a colleague?