While you slept last night, I worked.
For 25 years (if you count my seven years in institutional public relations), I’ve worked in journalism.
The Newscastic GIF factory created two lists that, well, total 25 — first, the 15 things we journalists have to do before we can consider ourselves real journalists, including:
Write a 15-inch story in 30 minutes
Have a meltdown in the restroom at least once
Replace two of the major food groups with coffee and liquor
Own your own police scanner
Eat in your car more often than you do at a table
Get fired for no good reason
Forget what it’s like to have a weekend off
Being told to “fuck off “ and “go to hell” by a source (or an editor)
Wake up in a cold sweat thinking about tomorrow’s edition
Can no longer read a story without scanning for typos and errors
Conduct an interview while in a towel
Rip into a spokesperson over the phone
I admit that most of these have happened to me, though I’d replace “car” with “desk” in the eating item and “bathroom” with “office” in the meltdown item. I may have been told to go to hell, and I may have told someone(s) to go to hell, but, you know, the F-word is kind of inappropriate in the workplace. (At least at a volume others can hear.) As for being fired for no good reason, in business, there’s always a good reason, and possibly one or more documented reasons.
I don’t believe I’ve ever awakened in a cold sweat about the next issue, though the work needed on the next issue has kept me awake at times, though really not recently. By this point, I’m familiar with the amount of work that needs to get done, and I’m also familiar with the feeling it’ll never get done. And yet, at its appointed day (unless the Postal Service screws up delivery), there it is.
The 15th item on this list was “Couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” I’m not including it because (1) the young woman pictured looks like no journalist who has ever lived on this planet, (2) you should never love your job, because your job doesn’t love you, and neither does your employer, and (3) the more correct sentence is “I can’t do anything else well,” because you should work at what you do best, not what you’re most passionate about, or whatever term a two-bit motivational speaker or writer uses.
The remaining 10 items would have been usable 25 years ago — 10 ways to not look stupid in this line of work, including:
1. NEVER, EVER ASSUME
When we say never assume, we mean never, never, never, never, ever. Sure, 99 percent of the time you’re right when you assume but it’s that one time when you are wrong that assuming will bite you in the ass.
2. WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING, ASK YOUR SOURCE
This goes back to the first rule – don’t assume. Ask a source to explain what the judge said, what the vote meant, or just what the hell is going on. Being clueless is not as bad as being wrong. Most sources will be happy to explain what’s happening rather than have it reported wrong.
3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Journalists can’t read a press release or court briefing three minutes before and expect to be prepared. Journalists are expected to know the basics of any story (the who, what, when, where, and how). Being unprepared wastes time – your time and your sources’ time.
4. HAVE DIRECTIONS
With the advent of Google Maps and GPS, there’s no excuse not to know where you’re going. Sometimes even being five minutes late could mean the difference between a great story and a mediocre story. Even if you think you know the address, before heading out of the newsroom, double check your directions.
5. KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO
Nothing is more insulting to an elected official or a big-shot business executive than some journalist asking, “And what’s your name?” These people are walking egos and if journalists want to have just five minutes of their time, they must stroke those egos. Learning who’s who is critical for journalists.
6. KNOW YOUR HISTORY
A news story without context is almost useless to readers. Editors don’t have time to sit down and explain the 20-year history of the monument that is about to be torn down. They say journalists are the writers of the first draft of history but journalists need to know a little history in order to do their job. So before heading off to an assignment, do a Google news search, talk to the reporter who wrote the last article on the issue, or troll through the newspaper’s morgue.
7. HAVE STYLE
Nothing pisses off an editor more than reading the copy of a journalist who obviously hasn’t fallen asleep while reading the AP Stylebook. The AP Stylebook should be a journalist’s Bible.
8. GET EVERYTHING YOU NEED THE FIRST TIME
Journalists usually have one shot to get all the information they need. Believe it or not, sources don’t sit at their desks just waiting for a journalist to call. When meeting with a source or attending an event, get all the information you’re going to need. Sure, there might be a follow-up question or two but there’s no guarantee you’ll get those answered before deadline. Get all the information you can while you have them on the phone or in person.
9. HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
Harddrives crash, voice recorders fail, batteries die. Too many journalists have been burned by having something go out on them. Don’t just record the interview, take notes as well because one day that recorder will fail. Back up your copy after every drink of coffee, make copies of your files, and keep a back-up battery for your cell phone in the car. Trust us, you’ll need it some day.
The last item is actually something I’ve learned in sports announcing, particularly when your equipment never seems to work 100 percent right. Even if (as has happened to me) you have to borrow someone else’s cellphone to broadcast a game, you have to get it done.