Lessons from the year

This week the Simpsonian staff is working on writing and putting together the final paper of the year. I’m sure many of us are thinking, “Wow, who expected it to come so fast?” But, interestingly enough, with the end of this year, I find myself looking forward to next year. Working as a staff writer this year has been a real learning experience for me, it’s been fun, but it’s also been frustrating.

As the year comes to a close, I find myself wanting to share a few lessons I learned with those writers who may be joining our staff (or the staff of any other student newspaper) next year. Certainly I’m not an expert, but I put together few tips that I picked up working on a recent story that, perhaps, may make somebody’s life as a journalist simpler.

If you work for a college newspaper, inevitably, there will come a time when you must use college administrators as a source. In my experience, most of the time they’ve been more than willing to comment and offer information. However, sometimes, the information is intentionally vague. Sometimes these officials are extremely hard to contact and it’s even harder to set up interviews. Sometimes, you run into the occasional administrator who simply refuses to meet in person for an interview or offer any comment at all for reasons that are beyond understanding.

So when you’re dealing with these administrators, keep these three things in mind.

1. Contact the source immediately after receiving the assignment
It’s tempting to put it off, but once you have the story assigned, it will save you headaches later if you contact your source right then and there. While it simply seems expected that these folks would contact you soon after receiving your email, for one reason or another, it’s often two or three days later. Then, you’re scrambling to find time or you’re forced to send questions via email…which brings me to my next piece of advice.

2. Never use an email interview when interviewing a college administrator
When dealing with issues such as salary, college finances, or future plans, unfortunately, you can often run into that intentional vagueness I mentioned earlier. Simply sending questions in an email to administrators gives them the perfect platform for that intentional vagueness or simply not to answer questions at all. In these situations, face to face is the only way to go.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask an administrator to repeat or clarify an answer
I learned this the hard way. It’s not that an administrator would intentionally try and confuse a journalist, but, if they tend to get long-winded in their answers, it’s easy to get details confused. In my experience, this gets even worse if monetary figures are involved. It’s tough to ask an administrator to repeat or clarify an answer, especially if you’re nervous or intimidated (which was certainly normal for me in the beginning) by the interviewee. However, it beats trying to figure it all out when listening to the interview at 3 a.m., trying to get your story done by deadline in the morning.

I hope this helps someone looking forward to their career as a college journalist. It’s not all that hard, all you need is an inquiring mind and a can of Red Bull.

Also, for more insights on student journalism, check out www.journoterrorist.com. It’s a blog out of Florida I found while navigating Twitter. It’s both insightful and irreverent, so enjoy.

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