A reporter’s role is sometimes seen as a lowly occupation, but the truth is that a journalist must be multi-disciplined. The smaller the publication, the wider the range of skills needed. And these skills can be applied to other kinds of writing.
Whether you’re just setting out as a writer or have years of experience behind you, I recommend taking a job or internship at a regional newspaper.
While major publications may ask for a journalism degree, a small-town paper is likely to take you on if you can string words together while making coffee for the boss.
I was already an established freelance writer when I decided to take a job at my local newspaper, hoping to expand my skills. In fact, I was in my 50s, making me probably the oldest “cub reporter” in the business.
My predecessor had enrolled in a university course in journalism, hoping to further her career. Within weeks, she’d returned home, asking for her old job back.
“I’d done it all before,” she complained.
She clearly didn’t recognize what a valuable training course the role of junior reporter was. Unluckily for her, I’d already been appointed to her former post and I was learning the same skills she had while drawing a salary.
No matter how experienced you are, don’t be too proud to start at the bottom. That way you can learn the tricks you need to run a successful writing-based business.
Although you could learn all these disciplines for a fee by signing up to a study course, as an employee you can earn as you learn!
Search online or the small ads in every paper you can get hold of and be prepared to do some cold calling. Arm yourself with a few clips so the editor can see you’re literate. And once you get your foot in the door of your local newspaper, here’s a sample of what you stand to gain that you can carry over into your freelance writing career.
The first thing you’ll learn is the newspaper editor’s word is law. When he says “Jump,” you say “How high?” or “From which bridge?”
A good editor is your most valuable teacher. They’ll patiently tell you what they have changed and why. Next time, they won’t need to change it, which will keep them happy. The less an editor needs to edit, the happier they’ll be. Playing your part in the editorial process by producing clean copy will keep the publication running smoothly.
Occasionally, you’ll come across an editor who—unlike at Craft Your Content—will alter your words just because they can. Acknowledge they’re using you as a salve for their insecurities and suck it up.
As a reporter on the lowest rung of the ladder, you can expect to spend much of your working day behind a desk correcting and rewriting other people’s copy.
You’ll have to tackle reports from members of the public. Some of them will have literacy problems.
At times it will feel more like translating than editing. I’d swear one regular contributor to my paper got her cat to write her copy.
Stick with it, because copy editing is a marketable skill, which you can offer as a freelancer. You’ll also ensure your own copy is consistently clean and accurate.
You don’t choose what to write when you’re an employee—not entirely, at least. You’ll be told what to write, how long your article must be, and you’ll strictly follow your publication’s house style.
If you’re told a piece must be a certain number of words or column inches, that’s what it must be. That applies to any publication you want to pitch to. After all, someone else has to make your work fit the page.
This skill is not only important while earning as a journalist, but also when writing as a freelancer. Delivering what the client wants is crucial in terms of success—a freelance writer who can’t follow guidelines will not have a very long career!
Discipline is key. You can’t afford to be self-indulgent. Save that luxury for your personal journal—a vice to be practiced behind closed doors.
You’ll learn that an even-handed approach is important. You must seek out people with opposing views in order to produce balanced articles. Remember: You can’t please everyone, nor should you want to.
At times you’ll be the most hated person in your town. If you’re popular with everyone, you’re not doing your job as well as you should.
When a hotel owner, whose poor hygiene I’d exposed, referred to me as “That f****** b****!” I was ready to turn cartwheels with joy.
You may think your writing is tight, but your editor will tell you to cut and cut again. Just when you think you’re done, he’ll cut it some more.
Consider some of the words and phrases you use on an almost daily basis without thinking.
“Nothing at all” means “nothing.” Why use three words rather than one to say it?
Don’t say your subject was told to sit down. “Down” is superfluous. Where else would he put his butt—in the air?
Consider the word “that” as in “he said that…” It’s another meaningless word cluttering your copy.
Simplicity is vital also. I, for one, can’t cope with long words or complex sentences first thing in the morning, so why should we expect anyone else to?
Speed is essential. When I first joined the paper, I could do fast, or I could do accurate. I soon learned I had to do both at the same time if I wanted to keep my job. And accuracy is a virtue beyond price.
Sometimes, a major news story will break as your publication is about to go to press. Then you’ll have to shelve your work and switch your mindset to focus on something new as a new deadline will race toward you.
The same applies to most freelancing: While working on a client’s project, a new opportunity arises, one you can’t ignore, and you suddenly have to learn how to cope with both deadlines. Newspaper experience can be invaluable here.
I learned to treat an interview like a social occasion. I gained my slightly unorthodox interviewing skills by interviewing members of the public in the reception area of my newspaper when there was nowhere else to take them.
The receptionists, who lived locally and knew everyone in town, tended to join in our conversations. Often, the interviewee forgot they were being interviewed. It worked in my favor, as I sometimes gained additional information I hadn’t been looking for.
It’s wise to keep a list of questions you need to ask your subject, but also be prepared to let an interview take its own direction. You never know where it might lead. You might even get an extra story out of it.
This skill can be particularly useful in any context of writing that requires understanding people and their motivations. If, for example, you write memoirs, you’ll learn how to get the best from your subject.
As a reporter you may be asked to review anything, from a local school’s dramatic production to an author’s latest work. This is where you’ll learn to balance negative criticisms with positive ones. You’ll need to take the same unbiased view as you would for a political report.
You mustn’t try to be too clever at the expense of the artist, writer, or performer—the work isn’t about you.
While working as a journalist, you’ll meet a great many people, both in person and in cyberspace. You’ll have the contact details of most of your local population at your fingertips.
Continual contact with members of the public will help you develop social skills you never knew you had. That way you’ll get to know people and their business needs.
And later, when you leave your job, you can take with you a fat book of contact details from which to build a client base. Many of them will already be familiar with your work and will trust you with their assignments.
Journalists learn many skills related to writing, both directly and indirectly. They have to, otherwise they wouldn’t cope with the demands of the job.
Most importantly, these skills can be applied to other writing jobs, too. For example, if you’re a freelance writer, a stint at a local newspaper will massively improve skills that are essential to a freelancer.
From polishing your copy editing to tightening your writing, and from learning how to cope with multiple deadlines to improving your social skills, being a journalist can be a great learning experience.
And you get paid, too!
Mary Cook is a UK-based writer and former editor. She has worked as a regional newspaper reporter, an overseas correspondent for the Tokyo-based Hiragana Times, and a spoof agony aunt for The Lark. She's published two books: "Money in Honey," a business manual, and "Collywobblers – Perverse Verse for Guys and Ghouls," a book of supernatural poems. Perhaps her biggest achievement is her life experience – 78 years of it – many of which have been spent in rowdy English pubs, singing unaccompanied folk songs.