I gave my last lecture of the quarter to nearly 70 freshmen at the Medill School of Journalism this week, in the basic fundamentals class, Reporting & Writing. I have been teaching this course in some iteration since 2001. It is never dull.
“Everything Matters,” is a bookend to the first lecture, “Assume Nothing.” I like symmetry. The Five W’s and one H apply to a journalist’s career. And here is the gist of the lecture. Minus the tuition.
- Who. The strongest piece of this puzzle is who you are as a journalist. As you choose your platforms for success, consider that an agile journalist is a marketable journalist. The future is about diversification of skills. Also, remember to carefully select who you choose to be your mentor, whether it is an instructor, author, columnist, reporter or peer. This is one of a few professions I know where your success is about not based on who you know, but how you do. And who you are. Stop thinking you will inherit the opportunity to win the Pulitzer. My family is in the starter drive business. Not a lot of journalism cross-over.
“You don’t write because you want to say something,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “You write because you have something to say.” That is a reminder to remember the audience, an important “who” in your work. What they want and what they need from you will help you decide how you will reach them, what is best for your content and what is best for the reaction you intend.
Your sources are another key “who.” Remember to be inclusive and expansive. Consider diversity of voice in every story you write, regardless of whether that diversity is transparent. Strive for a chorus of different voices. And fact-check to save the integrity of the people you quote and to preserve the dignity of your own byline.
- What. The value of your content is determined by the text, visuals, sounds. Is your content fair, balanced and accurate? Is it orginal and creative? Is it ethical? Is this your best work. This is a tough question. You strive for every article, post, book or project to be a reflection of your best effort. Sometimes we fall short. But the goal is to aim for excellence every time.
That means moving your content beyond formula to excellence, by showing enterprise in your reporting. Consider the writing as music with cadence, beats and melody. Even storytelling across platforms must be based on a solid idea. Consider what author Ansen Dibell does: “What you need to ask yourself about any story idea is whether it’s something too personal, something that’s very important to you, but would justifiably bore a stranger sitting next to you on a cross-country bus.”
But here is where your precision as a writer, your mastery of eloquent prose comes in to play. Know that the craft matters. Author and narrative journalist Tracy Kidder said, “You can write about anything and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved. ”
- Where. Do you get your information passively? Wait for the press release, sit in the back at the press conference, answer the phone? No, you report with your feet. You gather sources and background from a multitude of online sources and social media, but you go out and observe. You talk to people face to face. You learn by being there. Remember that as a journalist, you are a witness. Roman Milisic wrote: “We are not all celebrities, we are not all supertalented, but in one way or another, we are all witnesses. Reality defines our vision of the world. And what we have seen, we must tell others. “
Remember that where your content arrives matters. The where — ink on paper, sound, video, text on mobile or screen– influences how the user takes your story and ingests the information, interacts with it and passes it on. When creating the journalism, remember where it arrives affects the impact.
- When. Perhaps the most difficult first lesson in this course is meeting the deadline. Timing matters. When you meet the deadline. When your story arrives. The newsworthiness is determined by the timeliness. Is your story fresh? Is your story first? And does your audience need it now? But first is not best if it is not the whole story. If it is wrong. Or if it could be better if you spent more time, did more digging, polishing, or all of the above.
Your worth as a journalist hinges upon your understanding of timing. Are you able to stay ahead of trends? React quickly? Assess the news value of any event or interview? True, every kind of story has been written before. But not by you. “Be yourself. The world worships the original,” Jean Cocteau wrote.
- How. Yes, it matters how you behave to sources, editors, peers and the audience. Be humble. Ask for clarification. How you report, how you write and how you deliver the content determine your value as a journalist. All great journalists internalize a solid code of ethics. Understand that the how is as critial as the who, what, where, when and why. Because your reputation outlives your content.
How you improve your content is by asking for clarification when you don’t understand. Re-report. Add more layers. Rewrite. Work in layers. Write in layers. Revise. Let the content breathe, take stuff out. Put more stuff in. Janet Bukovinsky wrote: “Ask anyone who makes a living with words: Writing is hard work. To be a writer is not nearly as significant an achievement as is the act of having written something fine and eloquently.”
How you are received matters. How well you do your job and how you are noticed are significant factors. How much passion you have for your work matters. Is this more than a profession for you? It is for me. Try to find the magic in the work. Toni Morrison wrote, “If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.”
- Why. Ask yourself why you are doing this story. Understand why your sources want to be included–or not. Know why your audience wants the story. Find the answer if you don’t have one immediately. But never forget to ask yourself, “Why are you here?” Dare to be good at what you do. Believe that your work matters and that everything you do as a journalist matters. There are no secrets you can keep as a journalist. Your professional life is transparent and avaliable for anyone to discover.
Resist compacenecy. Erica Jong wrote, “The trouble is if you don’t risk anything you risk even more.” Take a risk writing a new kind of story. Take a risk by finding new sources and trying new avenues of storytelling. Experiment with audio, video, photo and graphics. Improve who you are and how you work as a journalist. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote,” Once you express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it. Then you can change the world.” Your journalism matters. Your journalism can change the world. A small piece of it, or the whole darn thing.
I will say it again, everything matters.
But most importantly, remember that journalism and this course are each like a long road trip. You can spend your time looking at the lint in the car seat and worrying about how much gas will cost at the next station 100 miles away. You can also spend your energy complaining about AP Style and grammar quizzes, current events or the speech story assignment. You can keep yourself panicked about points and grades.
Or you can look out the window. Realize how far you have come. And enjoy the view.