Life lessons at the Missourian

So, I’ve learned a lot of lessons at the paper since the beginning of the semester. Some I’ve written down, others I haven’t. But these are the ones I thought of immediately. Most likely I’ll add more, knowing my memory.

But it’s true that I’ve learned so much. Maybe more, journalistically, than any other semester. I’ll have more time in the fall to focus on academics, but I really enjoyed the unique experience I got at the newspaper. There’s nothing really to compare it to.

I’m also keeping these here as a record for myself. I’m writing all of these lessons down, but by no means have I mastered everything. I need to constantly reflect on my work. And that’s what this is for.

What I learned:

1. Don’t be afraid to just pick up the phone and call.

2. But when you do call, have questions prepared. Try to gauge where the conversation may go

3. Know your sources. Know how to address them.

  • Do you say “Dr.” or just call them by their first name? I’ve found that this really does kind of change the mood and the perception of the reporter and the source.

4. Don’t bark up the wrong tree. Bark up all the trees. Call everyone who can be relevant.

  • This is what my editor told me during an editing session for my story on the after-school programs. I just loved it. I had been focusing on one source that I really wanted to talk to, but I had completely overlooked contacting a very basic person who could have given me an explanation without the goose chase I found myself in.

5. Corrections suck. But they help you learn.

6. Don’t bottle up emotions.

7. Follow your gut.

8. Use the snail. Think creatively about your sources.

  • One of my stories totally transformed from what it was going to originally be when I talked to a source I came to after being unsuccessful in contacting the main source. It was really interesting to see a fledgling story come from a tiny little GA story.

9. You’ll never know where news will go or where it will come from. You can’t predict it. But you should always be ready for it.

  • Another story I wrote was about a local Columbia man who was elected to the school board. Everyone was in awe (happily) about his election, and there wasn’t even going to be a watch party for the election results until the night before when I spoke to him. I’m glad I was there to witness the unfolding events. Unexpected news can be some of the best.

10. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.

  • I got to cover a lot of different topics during this semester. Yes, I got to know the school board and its meetings pretty well and I learned quite a bit about lower-income students in Columbia, which is actually one of the reasons why I came to the education beat. But I also got to cover crime. I wrote some really fun profiles — a storyteller, a jazz musician, a school principal. A lot of these were GA stories. Some were more geared toward education. But I got to expand my reporting skills. No lesson in journalism is really better than being confused in a courtroom or chasing down sources on a topic you’ve just taught yourself.

11. Appreciate your colleagues.

  • I mean, I can’t say much anything more than that. My fellow beat reporters — and the rest of the reporters and editors at the paper — are really what kept me going through the semester. Allie’s my sunbeam. Breanna makes me laugh. Zach’s my bro. Ratko was the best Shieldcroc I’ve ever known. (Just a few examples)

12. Be open-minded.

  • Journalism is a way to peek into humanity. Interviews are the peephole: let them be conversations (I know interviews are inherently non-conversational. But I think they can get pretty close.) Stay open to what people say and what direction the conversation is going.

13. Become okay with the fact that your inner journalist is always turned on. Embrace it, actually.

14. Respect the photo and graphics departments. They really pull our stuff together, and I think we as reporters can get too single-minded.

15. Respect the draft.

16. Be self-critical. Don’t be afraid to shorten your work. Don’t be afraid when others do it, either. Don’t take it personally.

17. Do your research beforehand. Read clips.

18. But if there’s something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask basic questions. It feels really dumb. But I still really struggle with this, for some reason. Pride can be a nasty thing.

19. Always start with the scales. Mozart can come later.

  • Another one taken from my editor. I suffer from the debilitating complex of writing way too much, way too eloquently. Particularly when I could write the same thing in about 10 words. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, and I think I can attribute that to my GA pieces and the school board coverage I’ve been a part of.

But there are things that, looking back (everyone knows that hindsight’s 20/20), I would have given more attention to. And maybe these are things that I can’t fix in a semester. Maybe they’re long-term changes I need to make. But this semester did open my eyes to not only the lessons I’ve learned and the accomplishments I’ve achieved, but also my flaws.

Learning from experience has this beautiful way of revealing how you act in raw situations. There’s really no other way to learn, at least in a profession like this.

People say that the Missouri method is just diffusion of responsibility, or less eloquently, laziness. But I don’t think it’s that. It’s putting responsibility into our hands (which is something we complain even MORE about not having), and it’s nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time. Yes, we make mistakes. We write great stories, too. We meet great people, including each other. But everything I’ve learned this semester that has really struck me has almost always come from things I’ve done and the situations I’ve been in. And some of these lessons I’ve learned from the people around me, as well, including my editor and the other reporters around me.

There were times when I was really disheartened. I got a testy at some points. But I really had people pull me through who encouraged me to keep pushing. I’ve still got a week left, so there’s always room for more events and news. I’ve learned that much.

It’s been a wonderful ride. I’ll miss being at the newspaper all the time and having a place like that to just go to when I had free time. I’ll miss having so many kindred spirits around me constantly. And I’ll definitely miss the parking tickets I’ve gotten and the mountain of coins I’ve pumped through the meters over these past few months (just kidding). But it really is a great place to be. I learned lessons. I made mistakes. But it’s all part of the greater experience.

If you try, you can flourish at the Missourian. I hope I can get to that point through my tenure as a reporter here.

And I won’t be there for the fall. But I’ll still be around. And I’ll be back, soon enough!


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