COMMENTARY| Recently, I interviewed journalist, Robert Johnson of Business Insider, Christi Womack, East Manatee Editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group, and reporter Chris O’Donnell of the Herald-Tribune, to find the best route a budding journalist should take to become a reporter. According to these three experts in the field, a major priority while still a college student is to obtain an internship with a reputable newspaper or magazine company. The internship provides the student with important inside knowledge on how the business functions and also offers a chance to be published. The articles that get published during an internship speak volumes on a resumé. It is also important to write articles (clips) for your college’s newspaper/magazine.
Furthermore, becoming a journalist requires not only good note-taking, but photography and videography skills. According to Johnson, “learn to take photographs, video, and audio – [there’s] tons of ways to tell a story – be great in at least two of them, but be able to do it all.” Womack agrees. She says being good at writing, photography, and videography is a must for all journalists in today’s economy. O’Donnell covers the education beat and says for the most part he relies on taking good notes but also has his camera with him just in case. “You never know what you may come across that’s news worthy.”
A couple of other necessary tools that was not mentioned during the interviews are a laptop and a cellphone. These two items were prominent when meeting O’Donnell and in constant use during the time I was permitted to shadow him while on assignment. He also has at his fingertips the ability to ‘link-up’ his laptop online via his wireless modem USB air card. While taking written notes and punching keys on his laptop he was also texting on his cellphone.
While shadowing O’Donnell on assignment, his local newspaper competitor was right beside him and she also was writing down notes, punching keys on her laptop, and texting on her cellphone. Right away what I noticed between these two competitors was attitude – both reporters were congenial towards one another but did not share their information. The one difference I noticed between them was O’Donnell did not come across as rushed, tired, or bored, whereas, his competitor looked exactly that. O’Donnell explains the difference, “The reporters at her paper are required to write three or four articles a day. Our paper is different in that quality is better than quantity.”
Shadowing a reporter one time in the field is not considered by any means an internship. Additionally, while it is important to participate with your college’s newspaper or magazine, it does not count as an internship but serves as an introduction into the world of journalism. Internships are off-campus experiences held at respectable media companies. They can last anywhere from three to six months and, once a college student graduates, the internship can lead to employment with that company or another. Johnson adds, “Seeing the interns here [at Business Insider] I’m able to see firsthand how important internships are. Not just here, but anywhere” that is a respectable company. Johnson, Womack, and O’Donnell all contributed to their college’s newspaper as well as interned at newspapers while in college. All three of these experts in journalism believe they would not have the jobs they now have if they had not written for their college’s newspaper and interned off-campus. O’Donnell simply says, “It’s much tougher to get a job as a journalist without an internship.”
O’Donnell relates what students get from an internship, “I interned with the Herald-Tribune, that’s how I got my job. If you intern, you get a couple of things. You get real experience. I wrote for the college newspaper and I was editor-in-chief in my last semester, but it’s a college newspaper and as much as you try to do good work, and some people do, it’s not the same as a real newspaper. Newspapers are a lot tougher, it’s one of the institutions in the community that is holding a light up and holding people to account. Plus, the whole actual element of writing and having your writing edited by a professional editor it’s a really invaluable learning experience. [Furthermore], you get clips and if you’re going for a job and you have clips from a real newspaper that’s way better than having clips from your college newspaper.”
Not all journalists attend a journalism program while in college. Robert Johnson’s bachelor’s degree is in Professional and Technical Writing during the time he interned at The Herald-Tribune. However, he did attend a journalism program in graduate school in New York City. Womack took a nontraditional route into journalism as well her college degree is in English. She reveals, “When I was in junior high, high school, and even in junior college I was always on the school newspaper. I was always a very good English student.” She did her internship in the features department at the Bradenton Herald then they hired her after she completed her internship. Womack’s extensive experience in journalism includes holding positions as a reporter, a copy editor, a page designer, city editor, and is presently the editor of east Manatee County for the Herald-Tribune. O’Donnell is originally from England and worked as a computer programmer prior to moving to the United States. He decided to attend an accredited college in Florida and was accepted into the school of journalism.
The idea behind an internship is that the student will intern with a newspaper or other media company while earning a grade and learning how that company operates from the inside out. Learning how a professional media company operates on a day to day basis helps the student become familiar with, not only that company’s philosophy of business, but also, as Johnson pointed out, “you’re allowed to make mistakes as an intern and you need that because you learn from those mistakes. You don’t have that luxury as an employee.” Additionally, while participating with on-campus newspapers and/or magazines in addition to interning off-campus at a professional media company the student has the opportunity to be published. Johnson, Womack, and O’Donnell agree presenting articles from a professional publication carries more weight on a resumé than clippings from a college newspaper or magazine.
O’Donnell parts with a few words of wisdom to budding journalists, “It’s a great job with a lot of responsibility. It can be fantastic at times and it can be exasperating at times. Don’t go into it if you want to make a lot of money. It’s definitely, I think, a valuable thing we do for the community and for the democracy in the community. You look at school board meetings very, very seldom is T.V. news there. We’re like that conduit; we keep an eye on what’s going on and bring it to a wider public’s attention. [For example], on how tax dollars are voted on as to how it’s going to be spent. If newspapers go out of business I don’t think there’d be anybody at a school board meeting to cover it.”