The Truth About Being a Journalist

Yesterday, I spent the morning at Marcus Whitman Junior High School‘s annual career fair. The gym was full of folks representing a range of professions: machinists, attorneys, animal control workers, a member of the county coroner’s staff, restaurant owners, medical personnel. It was our job to give the students a glimpse into the future and imagine themselves in our shoes.

Seeing them streaming into the gym reminded me what it was like to be in their shoes, drifting in that limbo stage between childhood and adulthood, trying to fit in while standing out. A few had that deer-in-the-headlights stare. Like, “Oh, man, I’m actually going to have to get a job someday.” Some knew exactly what they wanted to do … to the point they’d crossed all other possibilities off the list. The vast majority of them, however, were open-minded, politely but genuinely interested in prospect of being a journalist, at least for a minute or two.

I thought, what do I tell them about our industry, which has seen thousands of journalists laid off and hundreds of publications shuttered? Should I encourage these young people to invest their money, time and energy training for a career that may not exist as we know it by the time they’re out of school? It wouldn’t quite have been in the spirit of things to say, “Run!” So I told them the truth about journalism, at least as see it from my desk at the Kitsap Sun, a daily newspaper/Web site, published in Bremerton, Wash., circa 2010.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions, and how I answered them.

Where do you get your story ideas?
We monitor state and local government Web sites and other Web sites for developments in and around Kitsap County. We stay in contact with sources with whom we’ve established relationships and use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to keep up with what’s going on. We receive e-mails and phones calls from readers and others about news or human interest stories. And sometimes, we get ideas that strike our fancy, like the story I wrote on the Mattress Ranch guy.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Writing the first sentence of any story.

What educational classes do I need to take to become a writer?
Don’t wait to complete your degree to start writing. Sign up for the high school newspaper or year book. Take journalism, photography and videography classes (South Kitsap High School has a great video production program). Write as often as you can, and be open to constructive criticism. Pick a topic that interests you and start a blog.

How successful are students who major in journalism at getting a job?
This wasn’t a frequently asked question, but I thought it was a great question. I couldn’t speak to current statistics, but I can say that the job market for journalists remains tight. Journalists today are required to wear many hats, so successful applicants will be ready to demonstrate versatility and innovation. Here at the Kitsap Sun, we reporters now not only write stories, but shoot videos and, in a pinch, take simple photographs.

With migration to the Internet, reporting the news is shifting from a series of static episodes to a fluid, quickly shifting landscape of information. News Web sites not only report news, sports, features and opinion pieces (as in the print paper), they serve as an online community forum. Readers can comment on stories and blogs, submit their own pictures and videos, and write their own blogs. In that was were are becoming a virtual community.

The Kitsap Sun will continue to publish the print edition of the paper. At the same time, our Web site is evolving rapidly. Both serve different, valid purposes. By the time these Marcus Whitman students graduate from college, it’s likely there will be jobs that don’t even exist (at least as separate jobs) right now. The titles “data base wrangler,” and “news cartographer” come to mind, for example.

To the student in the Twilight T-shirt who said she likes to write fantasy stories I said:
Hold that thought, keep writing and send your stories out to fiction publications as often as possible. At the same time, consider how you’ll earn a paycheck while waiting to become the next Stephenie Meyer.

To guy who wants to be a sports writer but wasn’t sure how he’d do it since he plays sports year ’round:
Cover the girls’ games.
I loved his reaction, at first, stunned silence, then a little ah-ha moment, then a slow sideways grin. They can be taught.

Is your job, like boring?
Yes, sometimes. Welcome to the real world.

Is your job stressful?
Yes, often. Welcome to the world of journalism.

Have you ever interviewed a celebrity?
I tried to tell them about Loretta Swit, aka “Hot-Lips Hoolahan,” who was in town a few years ago promoting her personal cosmetic line to a group of women. She gave me a mini-makeover in front of the group, but it didn’t take. The students were clueless about the significance of this story. They got the connection to M*A*S*H* after I primed their little neuron pumps, but they were unimpressed with Swit.

Debbie Macomber? Isn’t she that author lady? I think my mom reads her books.

Delilah? The South Kitsap resident and radio personality with millions of fans on the airwaves? No, never heard of her.

Seriously, next time Death Cab comes to town I’m on it. Just maybe they’ll know who Ben Gibbard is.

Do you like your job?
Yes, unequivocally. Stress turned inside out is excitement, and this job is frequently exciting. I’m not just talking about breaking news here, but also about how much fun it is not to know exactly what I’ll be doing each day when I walk in the door. Oh, sure, I have a plan, but often circumstances shift me to another track. We’re a small staff so I get to write news, features, Code 911 items and pretty much whatever comes along. I enjoy the variety, and I’m always amazed at how people allow me into their lives, often at deeply painful moments.

I also like the folks I work with, and I’m not just sucking up because I’m stuck with them. Over the past three years, it has sometimes seemed as if we were bailing out a leaky dingy while building the Titanic. We got this far though teamwork (and sometimes wacky outbursts of humor). Call me a terminal optimist, but I believe I’m not alone in saying things are looking up for the Kitsap Sun. It’s a work in progress. I can’t wait to see how it turns out, and I sure hope there will be someone to pick up where we leave off.

9 thoughts on “The Truth About Being a Journalist

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to talk with our kids about career opportunities and ideas.

    Btw, do I know the one who asked about being a sports writer? I’ll have to ask my favorite young male athlete when I get home from DC.

    Regards,
    Kathryn Simpson

  2. One thing to add for the journalist and many other professions. Never stop asking questions and never stop listening to the answers. Who? Why? When? Where? How? Still some of the best ways to get to the story, to get at the core issues, no matter the job description.

    The future for the journalists? Print will stay in one form or another, but the electronic media will be very powerful. Instant news, on the spot pictures, and drama at the touch of a keyboard. The future journalist will need to be techy, quick, and think on their feet, but still be capable of digging out the real stories.

    It should be fun for those who pursue the path, and it will be challenging.

    Good story.

    Roger Gay
    South Kitsap

  3. Did you mention, at all, the responsibility of being the people’s fourth estate? The responsibility to be skeptical of government and to truth-check – not simply parrot – the words from our elected officials and government agencies?

  4. Thanks for taking the time to interact with the kids Chris. They need to hear from more professionals about the challenges of the real world and the responsibility that goes along with it.

    The Kitsap Sun currently has an excellent example of a young person wanting to get into journalism who is working “outside the box” to gain experience and get their foot in the door. That person is Matthew Leach of the Forecasting Kitsap Blog. I have had the pleasure of meeting Matt personally and he is a great guy, with his whole life and career ahead of him. He is already well on his way towards being a success in the field he loves so much.

    Also, there are other avenues to gain experience when it comes to writing and reporting. Even old dogs can learn new tricks. The “other” Bremerton paper has offered me the Bremerton Community Column (no pay just for fun and experience). My first introductory column will be running this Friday (tomorrow) in the print edition. I was offered this opportunity primarily because of my blogging and writing via the Kitsap Sun. I have already thanked Steven Gardner and Marietta Nelson. Their stories and blogs made it possible for me to learn, grow and develop as a community writer. Thanks again guys!

  5. Congratulations, Colleen. Will you have to modify what you say now?

    I think David Falk’s site on the Seattle Examiner is a good example of the direction journalism is going. He pulls information together, in addition to his own observations and analysis, and uses those links and his perspective to report on soccer. He doesn’t miss much. And for the soccer fan: videos, pictures, and news from the Sound and from around the world.

  6. Thanks Karen. Nope. They like me just the way I am (smile). Warts and all. I still have free reign to comment on what I want when I want. At this time the writing in my column will NOT be hard core journalistic exposure pieces by any stretch of the imagination. It will be called Everything Bremerton and that is exactly what I will be writting about. It’s going to be fun!

    By the way, the new editor who offered me the opportunity….Andrew Binion.

  7. BlueLight – I did in fact talk about the need to “question everything” with several groups. Thanks for emphasizing it. Chris Henry, reporter

  8. Well done, Chris – and I agree with what Roger wrote as well. New media is definitely redefining the industry. Whether 8 track, vinyl, cassettes, cds, or mp3, we’re still talking about the delivery mechanism for music. Journalism is the same, and hopefully students will encounter teachers, instructors, and professors who guide them into anticipating (and preparing for) future development.

    Glad to hear Andrew is ‘back’!

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