After spending more than three decades in television, I think I might just have some valuable advice to offer journalism students.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with faculty members of a journalism school. I told them my backstory and then expressed a few concerns about what I see in newcomers entering the television news business. From that and from a few other observations, I thought I’d say something to today’s journalism students.
Not that I expect them to find it, of course. But has that ever stopped me?
I’ve been very fortunate to have done many jobs over my 32+ years in television. I’ve worked behind the scenes, I’ve worked in front of the camera and I’ve even been one of a team of managers. Over that time, I’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot. So maybe I might be at least a little qualified when it comes to passing along some wisdom.
1. Have reasonable salary expectations
I have to get this out of the way first. When I was in school at USC (that’s the University of South Carolina), my professors told us this wasn’t a field to go into if you wanted to get rich. This field, they said again and again, was for people who love the work. They told us that all four years of college. Often.
Yet some who graduated with me took jobs in the field and somehow found themselves shocked by how little they felt they made. Were they sleeping through class? Were they sleeping all four years?
We all have a mental figure in mind about what we’re worth. Spoiler alert: It’ll be a long, long time before you reach near that figure, if you ever do. You probably won’t.
That’s not true of only the journalism field. But it’s certainly true of that field, journalism students. Maybe that makes you reconsider? If so, that’s not a bad thing.
2. Listen more, talk less
This could apply to anyone who conducts interviews, but it really goes beyond that.
The classic example is the interviewer who asks a question and then is so worried about trying to come up with the next question that he misses a gem of an answer that he could follow up with. But so often, we’re talking or asking questions, or moving on to the next thing rather than taking time to listen to what’s being said in the moment. (Or even in watching what’s happening.)
If you can learn to make yourself listen — really listen — to what’s happening, you’ll observe so much more that you’d otherwise miss.
3. Have a thick skin
You’ll encounter plenty of keyboard warriors. They’re people who treat others in a way they wouldn’t tolerate anyone treating them for a millisecond. But their sense of entitlement is overwhelming. They think it’s somehow acceptable to tell you exactly what they think of you and your work, and the more mean-spirited they can be, apparently, the better.
They don’t bother me these days. I just sort of feel sorry for them and their lack of home training.
It also makes me appreciate my family and how much better I was brought up that much more.
4. Read newspapers — even if you want to go into broadcasting
No, newspapers aren’t “dead.” You can’t fairly claim they’re dying, either, despite the fact that so many have shut down.
Many newspapers are moving to digital models. Many other news services are launching digital services instead of print. But let’s face it: digital news is written in print form, not broadcast.
Broadcast writing means less grammatical writing. In broadcast, you write the way people talk. You have to simplify things because, in the words of the late David Brinkley, a respected journalist, the ear is the worst receptor of information.
Print involves reading. You have the copy in front of you whether it’s on paper or on a screen. You can re-read the same line as many times as you like. When you read a digital story, you’re reading a story the way it would be written in a newspaper.
Even if you aren’t interested in working for a newspaper, journalism students, you still need to know how to write for print, because if you work in television or radio news, I guarantee you’ll be writing for that station’s website. So you’ll be writing in print.
Read newspapers. Try The Washington Post or The New York Times. Read your local paper. Read USA Today. They’re all well-written and they tell thorough stories. If you pay more attention to writing for print, you’ll make your life and the lives of your editors much easier.
5. Stop trying to be an ‘influencer’
There’s an old joke among social media managers that suggests the ones who are the best at social media marketing generally have less-than-impressive counts on their own social profiles. Why? It’s simple, dear journalism students: they focus their efforts on their work.
If I’m hiring a digital producer, there’s a word on a resume that makes me cringe: influencer. There’s an excellent chance I won’t even reach out to someone who claims that title.
If you’re an influencer, that tells me that you’re all about you. You’re going to focus your energy on furthering yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. But I need you to focus on the outlet.
Your job as a journalist isn’t to “influence.” I don’t want you trying to persuade people to think they way you do. Your job is to inform. If you develop a following in this field, it will be because you’ve done a good job of informing.
That’s the way it should be.
If your goal is to be a journalist, your goal shouldn’t be to become an influencer. The two don’t seem to work quite that way.