Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Suck it up, rookies!

All right, students. You want to know what it's like out here in the real world? Let's put it this way: Your first professional gig is akin to the first day of school -- primary, not secondary. You think you're hot sh**? You're ready to set the world on fire? You just wait. Here's a wake-up call for those of you who think you could be the next fill-in-the-blank star journalist, whether print or broadcast. You've got a lot to learn, and many of those things won't be learned until you do this for a living.

Let me give you some deep background here. I'm into my second week as a news editor for The Item in Sumter, S.C. The hours are fierce and bound to take their toll on one's established sleeping habits. I'm lucky if I see the curb outside before 1 a.m. The budget meeting happens promptly at 3 p.m., and lasts five minutes at the most, so you'd better show up with an alert mind. An editor is assigned X number of stories per page, and is responsible for a certain page or pages. Everything that goes on those pages is subject to change. Such is the nature of news. As I am not the fastest draw when it comes to computer skills, it takes me much longer to lay out a page than it does my co-workers. Thankfully, they've been gracious to answer the same questions over and over, long after my tolerance level for such antics would have dwindled. Another thing about the nature of news is that it's constantly happening, and the order of importance changes just as quickly. The other night I and a co-worker went through three drafts of a single page before going to press. Be prepared to wipe out the thing you've worked on for three hours, because it might get cast aside for a more important story any minute, and page space is valuable.

Speaking of which, here's another point: Ads rule. This is not to suggest that I love advertisements, only that they take precedence. You fit the news around the ads. If the ad space eats up the story you've been given to put on the page, tough. Ad wins, every time.

Another thing is this: Unless you simply have a massive self-esteem issue, if you don't think you're very good at this thing called journalism, well ... maybe you're not. On the other hand -- without getting gender-specific -- if you think you're THE MAN, well ... you're definitely not. Here's a key word: Professionalism. People better than you do this job every day. To get to their level, you have to do what they do. That means you meet deadlines. That means you arrive on time and ready to work. That means no diva-like attitudes. I heard so many people in the halls of higher learning say they could be the next Oprah, the next Katie Couric, etc, ad nauseam. Guess what? They can't. They don't have the polish, the seriousness of tone, the look of determination. They're just star-tripping. That's not what this profession is about. It's about getting the truth and presenting it in a way that grabs the reader's or viewer's attention.

Lest you think I consider myself superior to anyone at my job ... think again. I've had my a** handed to me already. Each night, prior to sending our pages to film for pressing, we print out the entire news section, one page at a time. Each of us gets a look at the other's work for proofreading. Believe me, there's nothing like getting back a page full of red marks. You look at these errors all over the place and say, "How did I miss that?" If such an exercise doesn't instill a little humility, nothing will. It's happened to me. It'll happen to you. Don't take it personally, because you've got to go back in there and do it all over again tomorrow. Every day is a new chance to get it right.

This isn't meant to discourage anyone. I have aspirations, just as you all do. Some of those who are in school at the moment, who even ply their trade on the side in local free rags, have a leg up on the game. What they don't know, however, is that they haven't REALLY been subjected to the madhouse that is a full-time job in journalism. Many of these are reviewing jobs, which are fine and dandy, but -- sorry -- reviews aren't reporting. You're just giving your opinion, not going out to gather information from multiple sources. Such work requires you to get off your a** and go after something.

Just do me and all your future co-workers a favor: Do this for the right reasons. Do this because you love the news-gathering process. Do this because you want to make a positive contribution. Do this because Jason Blair and "Jeff Gannon" have put a pockmark on your choice of profession and you want to prove to the world they're the exceptions, not the rule. (By the way, if you don't know who those people are, find another field NOW.) If you wanna be a star, join the f****in' circus.


Blogger From Columbia said...

David, your message is coming through loud and clear... and it's an important one. Try as we might, those of us who teach in the university can only offer an approximation of what the real world will be. Our hope is that a student's strong skills set and personal resolve will prepare him/her for the world of work. Thanks for the post.

Ernie Wiggins

6:34 AM  

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