Dear Kate of August 2011,
I’m writing this from the future to give you a bit of an insight into what’s about to happen this semester.
You’ve decided over the summer that you’re going to rock the Missourian’s world, and I commend you for that, but you better be aware of all that entails. I know from experience you like to be really enthusiastic and optimistic about the future, but eventually get panicky at the thought that it might not work out the way you planned. This list is a way to keep you on track to your goals.
1) Jeanne Abbott (your editor, whom you will see more often than your roommates somedays) is going to scare you at the beginning of the semester when she tells you to turn in three stories a week. Never fear! Think of the cliff jump scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Sundance says he doesn’t want to jump from the ledge into the rocky river below because he can’t swim, to which Butch Cassidy replies through gales of laughter:
Why, are you crazy? The fall will probably kill ‘ya!
Your initial thought is going to be “I can’t hand in three stories a week when I have 12 hours of classes and a life!” but what you need to remember is that you don’t even have the basic training on how to turn in stories into Django yet (also, that the Missourian is about to become the only life you have, and that’s OK). Take it one step at a time and don’t sweat the small stuff until it’s time for you to worry about it. You may not be able to swim, but that doesn’t matter because you haven’t jumped yet.
2) You will literally start your news reporting career in the sewer. The lesson here: when John Schneller yells out, “I have a story opportunity,” take it. You may have no clue what you’re doing yet, but it’ll get you your first assignment, and it will actually be on how they test leaks in the sewer system. Glamourous? Not whatsoever, but everyone has to start from the bottom up. So to speak.
3) There will be days in the newsroom where nothing is going right, like your first GA shift that will almost kill all the love you have for journalism. You’re going to be banging your head on the desk like President Bartlet in the West Wing.
And yes, you’re still going to be there, just like Bartlet’s still going to be in the Oval Office for two terms. And you will get it done the right way because you drive yourself to do nothing less than your best. You’re going to be glad you were still in the newsroom because you’re going to meet some of the most devoted and talented people of your college career, cultivate new friendships and strengthen old ones.
4) Your favorite story will be stumbled upon in the rain as you walk back to the newsroom for class. Don’t worry about Communications Law lecture; stop and talk to the kind people sitting and smoking cigarettes on their porch once they’ve said good morning to you. You’ll get to lecture on time, and you’ll be able to say you’ve met a viking re-enactor and his family. You’ll also have a great spread at the end of September about them, and it will be the story you’re most remembered for in the newsroom.
5) Remember when it you made those cute hour-by-hour schedules for yourself on manic days? Yeah, don’t try that here. Be organized, but be flexible; you’re no longer dealing with just a class schedule and your own personal schedule. You now have to incorporate your editor’s schedule, sources’ schedules, class schedule, personal “time to breathe” schedule and the basics like sleep and food. DON’T FORGET TO EAT! You’d be surprised how easily food eludes your planning.
6) When someone comes to Mizzou to speak, talk to Amanda at the MSA office immediately, but know you’ll probably won’t get an interview because MUTV has first dibs. You won’t get to sit down with Marlee Matlin or Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But you will get to see them speak live, write two fantastic stories in 30 minutes and even get retweeted by Ms. Matlin the next day.
And have Gordon-Levitt run right past you. Swoon.
7) Lucky number seven, right? Luck has a bit to do with your success, just like relying on it is a part of your downfall. Some of your better stories happened to just fall into your lap, like the viking re-enactors and centenarian teacher, but other one’s you’ll have to pour your heart and soul into to get right. I of course am referring to the one still in progress – your story on STEM retention rates at MU. It’s taken you a month of headaches and spreadsheet organizing, but once it’s done, you’ll have a piece that you can be proud of, just like Jeanne (and you) wanted.
8 ) Speaking of Jeanne — and there’s a whole other post coming devoted to this subject — learn to TALK to your editor rather than ASK your editor. Your job as the reporter is to make decisions independently and check with your editor, not the other way around.
9) As much as you have to talk to your editor, you also have to listen to everyone else around you. Sometimes, just a simple mention will spark a complete idea, like the way in which “The Social Network” showed how Mark Zuckerberg figured out the final addition to Facebook — the relationship status — from a friend asking him if a particular classmate was single.
The perfect example of this is when your multimedia source mentions the Kappa Delta members who lived above her in her dorm at Stephens College. You won’t think much of it at the time, but suddenly it will strike you — there’s Greek life at Stephens (a predominately female college), and it hasn’t really been covered before. Some of the best stories will be found this way, I promise. Just keep your eyes and ears open.
10) One last piece of advice: remember that reporting isn’t a mechanical job. Some stories require a more emotional investment. Katherine Reed will praise you for sharing in the vikings’ joy instead of poking fun at it. You will definitely have to feel something when writing those three life stories, even though it seems every time you try to leave a GA shift at 6 p.m., we get an email or a fax requesting an obituary.
The important thing to remember is that you’re a human being first, a report second. With that said, I bring back that quote I seem to be annoying everyone with as I burn it into my WordPress account. The one that’s engraved on my life:
I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. – Maya Angelou
I’ll conclude this long letter with some reassurances. If you follow your gut, listen to and communicate with others, pop on “All the President’s Men” when feeling down and remember your humility, you will excel at news reporting and leave enlightened and ready for the rest of your life as a journalist. Take this as both a learning and life experience, and the Missourian will change you for the better. I promise.
Much love and luck,
Kate of December 2011