This is another Training Tracks blog post from the archive of No Train, No Gain, originally published June 21, 2004:
An intern asked a couple questions that wouldn’t even occur to a veteran in our newsroom: She was covering an event about three or four hours away and wondered if it would be OK to check out a company car the day before and drive to the event and spend the night. And would it be OK to drive all the way back in the evening after she filed her story?
On the surface, this was a simple matter of logistics, a cautious intern covering her tail as she made plans. And let’s face it, covering our tails is an important lesson for budding journalists to learn.
My answer went beyond the logistical questions to address the unspoken question and one of the most important lessons interns or other young journalists need to learn: trust and responsibility.
When we send you to cover an event, I said, you are responsible for overcoming any logistical obstacles you encounter and getting the story filed by deadline. If we trust you to cover the story and overcome with those obstacles, we have to trust your decisions in addressing those obstacles. You can drive it all in one really long day. You can stay over the night before or the night after. Or if necessary, you can stay over both nights.
OK, that logistical matter was a pretty simple lesson. She won’t have a successful internship with us this summer if that’s the most valuable lesson she learns. But responsibility, on several levels, is one of the most important lessons we teach the interns who spend summers (and sometimes weekends during the school year) in our newsrooms.
Another intern worried about whether he had lost his editors’ trust by failing to catch an error in a story, even though he double-checked the copy (even a veteran’s eye can slide over a July that should be June). We discussed how to double-check each fact in a story carefully. Any number and anything that’s capitalized demands extra scrutiny.
And yes, I assured him, he could regain his editors’ trust. His attitude, showing concern for the mistake rather than shrugging it off, was crucial here. Making excuses for a mistake would show a lack of responsibility. He’ll have more stories where he can show his editors greater attention to detail as well as this sense of responsibility.
As I dealt with these lessons in responsibility, I thought back to an instance when I neglected to teach an intern a more important lesson about responsibility.
The intern had been working a story the night before, trying to reach family members of some local people who were involved in a tragic incident out of town. She was unable to get the story, so an editor handed it off to me the next morning. Her note gave a few names and numbers to try. She said she had been unable to connect “but gave it the old college try.”
I came up with a few more names and numbers to try and got the story fairly easily. That’s no big deal. Sometimes it’s easier to track down some people during the day than it is at night. I’m a veteran reporter and I should be able to get some stories that elude an intern. But she was also supposed to be learning our craft and I didn’t take the time to teach her some lessons.
I wasn’t formally working with the interns that summer, so I did not feel an obligation to seek her out when she came in that afternoon (I don’t think we had even met yet). And I easily could have come across as an arrogant curmudgeon if I sought her out to teach her a lesson. But I was a senior reporter and our writing coach, and I learned a lot of my important lessons about this craft from people who weren’t formally obligated to teach me. And some of them were curmudgeons.
Here’s what I should have told that intern:
In this business, “the old college try” simply means you failed. You got the story or you didn’t and your attitude needs to be that you’re going to get the story. Ethics should be the only limits on your persistence and resourcefulness in pursuit of the story.
Editors and readers care only that you got the story, not how hard you tried in failure. The obstacles you overcame make a nice war story to tell over beers when you’re successful. But they don’t excuse failure. Your job is to get the story. (No, I haven’t gotten them all but when I catch myself making excuses, I know that means I failed.)
I also should have shared with the reporter the techniques I used to come up with a few more ways to contact people who could tell me about the tragedy we were writing about. Technique helps persistence and resourcefulness pay off.
What are you teaching the interns who are spending this summer in your newsroom? Of course you need to teach them fundamental skills and give them experience. What are you teaching them about the real fundamentals of the business: ethics, persistence, resourcefulness, trust, responsibility?
Links of the week:
- One of our interns asked for some help in organizing the middle of the story, noting the abundance of help he has received writing leads and nut graphs. I was chagrined to find that I didn’t have a lot to offer. So I sent out an appeal to some colleagues, who didn’t have a lot either. So Don Fry wrote “Unmuddling Middles” for Poynter Online.
- Chip Scanlan wrote an accompanying piece, “Putting Endings First.”
- Chip’s book, “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century,” includes a chapter on structure that also was useful for the intern looking for help with the middles of stories.