Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On-the-Job Training

I’m about five months into my tenure with the Mercury, and about three months shy of having been paid to write for a year.
In the time that I’ve been on the professional side of journalism, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned a lot.
And what I’ve learned, especially, is how much they don’t teach you in journalism school.
That’s not to say that my time in J-School was a waste or that I was not adequately prepared for the world of journalism. I’m very proud of the education I received while at the University of Wisconsin. The J-School there was fantastic and the professors really taught me how to write and think like a reporter.
The training I got in J-School was invaluable and irreplaceable. I’d be sunk without it.
That said, there were definitely some things I learned on the job that they didn’t tell me about.
Number one, something that was never mentioned and I never thought about, was how to park your car while out on the scene of a breaking story, what is called “spot news.”
Obviously, being poor college students, cars were few and far between. Most of us barely even had a bike (I did not). So the thought of trying to get somewhere as fast as you can and park in proximity to whatever it is you’re covering never crossed our minds.
On the job, that concern came up quick.
My first few times out I parked blocks and blocks away, usually, being too nervous to hold out for something closer. I’d arrive at the scene out of breath and sweating after my less-than-leisurely jog to whatever accident or crime scene I was covering.
I don't normally wear a tie or sport jacket, but I basically looked like the main character from this Cake video.
Now, I know what to look for, alternate routes to get myself usually within a block, maybe two, of where I need to be.
(For those of you in J-School and reading looking for tips: too bad. It’s something you need to learn on your own. Those nine block sprints to accident scenes are character-building, or at least good for your heart.)
This is how close you should be getting to crime scenes when you're in the pros, children.
Something else I learned is not to sweat story ideas. At least, I learned not to force them.
When I first jumped in, I was terrified. I was never great at plucking innovative stories out of thin air, which I assumed is what everyone did all the time.
Not so.
The best story ideas find you. You’re either out covering something and notice something else, someone contacts you with something, or you just get bored and try desperately to find a way out of that boredom.
The story I’m proudest of came while working as an intern this summer. I wrote it after I came across an innovative research and design project set to benefit African children suffering from deadly cases of jaundice. How did I come across that story?
Covering a sorta lame P.R. event.
In that vein, I learned not to panic. There were days in Delco when I wondered why I was the only one staring at Huffington Post or in the newsroom. It wasn’t terribly often, but everyone knows sitting in an office even for 15 minutes with nothing to do rots your brain out.
I quickly found out that everyone else had sources keeping them in the loop on everything.
With just a tinge of jealously, I set out on the awkward attempts at getting my first sources. Armed with business cards with my name, number and e-mail handwritten in, I emptied my wallet quickly of those at the various events and incident scenes I arrived at.
And, still, I sat and surfed Huffington Post whenever I wasn’t directly assigned anything by my editor.
What I learned was that sources will come as things happen. It’s not something that can be forced. Of course, you can assert yourself a little, but there’s a fine-line between intrepid reporter and “that guy is desperate and more than a little creepy.”
So, that’s a lot of my inadequacies, things I was never really taught or thought about while up in dear old Wisco.
What I did learn there, what has proven to be the best lesson I ever got, came from my hands-down favorite professor, the best teacher I ever had, Jim Baughman.
Professor Baughman taught a creative non-fiction class that I adored. There were few classes in college that I actively tried never to miss, and that was one of that premier club.
In Baughman’s class, during my final semester in college, we turned out 12 or 13 long-form journalism pieces. It was challenging and sometimes nerve-wracking, but ultimately a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
(Again, to anyone in Wisco reading this, take J405 or, really, any class with Baughman. It was the single best decision I ever made in college, outside of choosing to talk to the brunette that stole my hat after the Ohio State game. That turned out pretty well, too. It’s a close race, I guess.)
One of the better nights of my life. Also known as the night the kid on the goal post put his foot through an ESPN camera.
The best advice, in a long string of it, that I got from Baughman was an emphasis on using all my senses as a journalist. He didn’t drill it into our heads, but he would occasionally, coolly remind us to think of what we smell, how we feel, maybe even what we taste.
I’ve found that it’s far too easy to just write down what you see, focus on what people tell you. But when I force myself to stop and listen to what I actually hear, see what may not be the obvious focus of a scene, that’s when I really can enrich my stories. If you’re able to step back and really just absorb a scene, then your stories go from mere paper (or, these days, digital) to gold.
Because of Baughman, I’ve taken special note of how a house fire’s smoke is so thick you taste the burning timbers, what it feels like when the mist from a fire hose comes off a recently crashed car, the stark difference in a child crying over a dropped ice cream and the closing of their neighborhood school, and the way even fake, plastic flowers can have a sweet smell at a community memorial.
Armed with that advice, I think I could find a thousand more things that never occurred to me about being a reporter and still be just fine.