Posts Tagged newspapers

What I’ve Learned

For this blog’s 50th post, I decided to write about writing. Since finishing grad school last May, I’ve been trying to get a job as a newspaper journalist; here’s what i’ve learned so far about finding employment as a writer. I have not been terribly successful, so far, so don’t take this as a “How to Be a Writer” guide.

1: Newspapers want clips

My quest to become a journalist began when I started college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, but I did know that I liked to write and argue about politics. In an attempt to be social, I went to a meeting of the school newspaper, The Scarlet, and they assigned me an op-ed piece on gas prices. The rest, as they say, is history.

During senior year, I took a journalism class that included visits from local journalists. The first question they always asked was “Who works for the school paper?” That’s also how I got my first writing job (blogging for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s WorcesterU site): the editor saw that I worked for The Scarlet, and thought I knew what I was doing.

Published writing is a prerequisite for any newspaper or writing job. Editors want to see that a person can write; just telling them that you can without proof is not going to work. If you’re in high school or college, don’t put off writing for your school paper or any other publications.

2: They want more than clips

Good writing skills are the bare minimum for employment, employers won’t even consider someone who misspells things in their cover letter, but landing a job requires more skills. Newspapers want their reporters to have local knowledge, to know everything about the area they cover so said reporter can cultivate sources and stories.

Consequently, the best place to start looking for a job might be the place you’ve lived the longest. Having a working knowledge of the major issues of your hometown shows employers that you already know what to write about.

3: Expand your definition of “writer” and “employed”

If you can’t find steady employment, why not freelance? If you have an idea for a story, pitch it to your local newspaper. If you have a hobby, remember that the majority of content in enthusiast magazines is bought from freelancers. The New York Times also accepts op-ed submissions every week.

The problem with freelancing is that it’s hard to live off the approval of editors. So, like any good superhero, it’s a good idea to get a day job while freelancing. If you get the right job, it can contribute to your ultimate goal. I work at a not-for-profit agency, where I am making a newsletter, and writing press releases and articles for publication in local papers. In other words, I’m writing. It may not be a staff job at the Times, but it’s better than flipping burgers.

4: Work for free

This can feel exploitative and fulfilling at the same time. On the one hand, news organizations from CNN to Patch are broadcasting user-generated content. Aside from not getting paid, accepting a free blogging gig gives you some perks: the public (and potential employers) are viewing your work and your name is attached to a reputable organization. Thanks to the Internet, writing is one of the only professions where people are expected to work for free. Until payment systems catch on, we’ll just have to deal with that.

On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to do some important work. Volunteer organizations are always looking for people to write grant applications or press releases, or edit newsletters and websites. You still don’t get paid, but you do get to show off your skills for a good cause.

5: Keep Writing

No matter what you do, the important thing is to keep writing. It is, after all, a skill that can only be maintained and improved with practice. You may not have a job, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop observing the world and putting words together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Even if you can’t think of something that’s fit for public consumption, keep a notebook. Write a blog, even if you don’t think anyone will read it. After all, if you really want to be a writer, how could you stop?

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A case for the newspaper

I don’t believe in the technological imperative. Recently, there has been talk of converting my college newspaper, The Scarlet, to an all-electronic format. This would transform a legitimate bastion of independent journalism into a college version of aol.com.

Sometimes newness blinds us to the relative utility of different technologies. The standard narrative states that social media are the future; they are faster, more convenient, more interactive, and waste fewer trees than print. Defenders of the newspaper are lumped in with aficionados of vinyl records.

The truth is more complicated than that. First, not everyone has a smartphone or other electronic reading device; abolishing the newspaper would be an act of elitism, limiting the news to people with enough money to afford a reading device.

Second, the intangible nature of the Internet would affect the journalistic integrity of an electronic newspaper. A paper’s physicality may seem like a drawback in this age of instant gratification and convenience, but it also makes the publication harder to suppress. Internet publications are easy to destroy because they don’t really exist; they’re just electrical signals in a server somewhere. You at least need to burn a real newspaper to get rid of it.

Third: the Internet may expose new information and new perspectives, but it does not have any mechanism for evaluating them. That is what we need newspapers for. The slogan “all the news that’s fit to print” should be taken literally: if a story shows up in print, that means it was carefully researched and edited, not just banged out by an emo college student or Glenn Beck.

The Scarlet sent out a survey asking its readers what they wanted, and it’s possible that they will want an all-electronic media source. But what if they’re wrong? Journalism is about being the advocate of The People against the powers that be, but that does not mean blindly listening to them. If the audience got its way all the time, every media outlet would be emulating TMZ. Sometimes, the best way to serve people is to give them what they need first and what they want second.

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