While I still plan on getting around to writing about the rest of the speakers we heard from at last week’s Dow Jones News Fund meeting in Lincoln, Neb., I thought this would be a little more useful. And Emerald Publisher Ryan Frank wanted me to do it.
My top five takeaways from my ten days in America’s breadbasket. Some apply to reporters, some to copyeditors, others simply to the Renaissance Journalist we’re all told to be nowadays.
1. Learn the quirks of your beat
Yes, it sounds obvious. Why wouldn’t I get to know my beat? But especially in sports, traditionally fertile ground for unspoken traditions, rituals and rules, making an ignorant mistake can erode your credibility faster than you can say “Bob Mould.”
For instance, did you know female basketball players, especially in college, don’t list their weight on team sites? I didn’t. It makes sense, but for a new beat writer eager to run a story on the team’s new power forward, even bringing up her size could draw fire from readers. Personally, I think this is silly. If they want to play a game that values physical size and leverage to the degree basketball does, their weight shouldn’t be off-limits. But it is.
Revel in what makes your beat different.
2. The working relationship between copyeditors and reporters will deepen
For two job titles that famously don’t get along, there’s sure going to have to be a lot of cooperation in the future. One exercise we did with Penn State’s Malcolm Moran illustrated new ways copyeditors can help round out a story without stepping on any toes.
Here’s Alex Rodriguez in what you may remember to be one of the most confusing and obfuscating press conferences in sports history. Say you’re in the office, watching this on TV, while Jane Reporter is covering the presser. Moran had us text him questions we would send Jane to help round out her story.
With the rise of nano-second journalism, reporters are often asked to do too much. In a situation like this, where A-Rod’s handlers are preventing follow-up questions and letting him openly duck questions, it takes incredible focus to fight through the fog and find the story. Here were some of our “texts.”
“Hey, it’s Mike from the office. Watching the presser. Don’t wanna step on toes but has anyone asked him how many times he’s used steroids?”
(After a question in Spanish) “Hey, we translated that last question. This was his answer in English.”
“Do you need me to look up anything about his time with the Rangers? Here are some of his stats from when he was allegedly using.”
The A-Rod example is extreme because of its uniqueness. It was the only time he would sit down and listen to reporters. But the lesson is important regardless — there’s always more copyeditors can do to help ease the burden of immediacy on reporters’ shoulders.
3. Etiquette is everything
Scott Powers of the Hartford Courant underlined this many times. Use discretion with what you say in the newsroom. As the new guy or girl (who more than likely has been hired to fill multiple roles for less money), there may be some resentment toward you. With any luck, it won’t manifest itself and will fade as you prove yourself resourceful and responsible.
Until then, watch what you say, especially about writers or their pieces. Slog through the grunt work. Be conscious about managing your perception around the office, and don’t take anything for granted. As a copyeditor, don’t advertise your skills or the giant mistakes you corrected. Even if you are the hero (maybe especially if you are the hero), pointing that out yourself won’t get you anywhere.
4. Get good at Twitter
A few good examples of Twitter journalists: Scott Powers. Andy Carvin. Brian Windhorst.
They all have a few things in common. First, like the best news aggregation sites out there, they credit early and often. Retweets make this job easier, but the best Twitter journalists go out of their way to find pertinent information for their followers. Just as important, they tweet opposing viewpoints to paint the entire picture of an issue.
Remember to be human, too. It’s important to get the news out fast and often, but take the time to tweet about the baby ducks you saw crossing the street or the fantastic restaurant you just discovered. That builds a relatable connection to your followers and, Powers noted, earns trust and makes you more credible.
Just don’t take it too far. I’d say about 50 percent of my tweets have to do with sports to some degree. I’m a fan. I try not to be a homer. (That’s still a work in progress.) When I get to the point where some of these journalists are, I hope to be a little less self-serving.
Some more Twitter tips include separating your professional account from your personal, and remaining engaged with your followers. Reply, reply, reply. That’s what makes Twitter so valuable — the open, two-way channel your stories in print don’t have.
Here’s more information on a topic that’s only going to become more important.
5. Be passionate — we’re not far off from where we want to be
I’ve seen, read and met some of the best student journalists in the country. And as special as they are, they aren’t miles ahead of anyone at the Emerald. We’re lucky to work in an environment so far ahead of the curve. Appreciate that.
You don’t need to know exactly the trajectory you want your career to have (if you did, I’d be in trouble), but know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Be able to articulate why you’re currently a reporter or a copyeditor or a photographer or a designer. Even if that reason is, “Well, I’m just trying to get somewhere else” — that’s okay. At least you know.
As Moran explained to us, we might never be able to write like W.C. Heinz, but we can be just as passionate.