Branding yourself a journalist

Last week, a representative of the University of Oregon Career Center spoke to us about the job process after our internship is completed. As our program is specifically tailored towards students of the University’s School of Journalism and Communication, she was there to give advice on finding jobs in those fields.

One of the main topics she touched on was the idea of getting your “brand” out there. Her advice was to connect with associates through social mediums and try to attend as many “informational sessions” as possible — good advice for anyone in the industry, but maybe a little more tailored to advertising and public relations majors. I don’t blame her for focusing on the professional communications world, as I’m one of the few writers in the program.

But, it did get me thinking: What does it mean to build a personal brand as a young journalist? Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a piece on the subject and had this to say about it:

When I was a hungry young reporter … [my goals were]: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.”

Note the order. First came the work.

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent.

Weingarten’s point of substance when branding is very important. As it turns out, effective branding is less about self-promotion than it is about producing quality work. So, although establishing relationships over LinkedIn and creating your own blog is important, it means nothing if you can’t demonstrate your writing abilities as a journalist — trying replacing the word brand with reputation.

With that said, it is also important not to disregard the significance in showcasing your value. The process starts with producing quality work, but, as veteran journalist Steve Buttry stated, “if you don’t show the value, you can become undervalued.”

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Covering Body Worlds

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to cover Body Worlds, a worldwide touring exhibition that has drawn more than 33 million viewers and is now at OMSI. A new exhibit is being featured, “Body Worlds and the Brain,” which examines recent findings in neuroscience on brain development and function.

I have to admit: I’m not a huge fan of anatomy. I’m the guy who (still) awkwardly faints when receiving a shot at the doctor’s office. But, once again, my internship forced me out of my comfort zone to cover a subject I normally wouldn’t. And, once again, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

As a reporter, I’m always thinking of what angle to use when approaching a story. Most of the time, if you write about what interests you personally about the subject, you’ll be fine. In this case, it wasn’t so much the “plastination” — the technique for preserving biological tissue that allows visitors to view the inner workings of the human body — that I found fascinating.

Instead, it was the scientific explanations behind some of the human race’s most mysterious tendencies, such as falling in love, acting out as a teenager and why the thought process of men and women differs so much. Most of these odd bodily occurrences are related to chemical reactions, which seems to sum up one of the main themes of the exhibit: Almost everything that happens to a human being — love, heartbreak, disease, anger, dreams — can be tied to some reaction occurring within the body, which is what I wrote about.

Portland is a special stop in the exhibit’s global tour because the city has one of the nation’s leading research institutes in Oregon Health and Science University, which has one of the nation’s premier neurological outreach programs, the OHSU Brain Institute. The institute partnered with Body Worlds to put on the exhibit as both share similar research tendencies and goals.

One of OHSU’s researchers and contributors to the exhibit contacted me personally to tell me how much he enjoyed the piece. This further validates my theory that regardless of how little you know about a subject, as long as you write with enthusiasm, you will succeed as a journalist.

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How to sound less idiotic when conducting an interview

Ah, yes. Another blog post giving tips on how to conduct an interview. Played out? Very; I think every publication relations major of the SOJC has one of these. But, I thought I would try, because I may have something to offer to the subject. For one, to continue the reporting theme of my blog, I’ll be talking more about being the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Secondly, I’m writing this post for those of us who aren’t the face-of-the-company type — you know, those who find the interviewing process sometimes a bit awkward.

Personally, I still find it at times uncomfortable. I don’t consider myself to be shy or anything, but it can be nerve racking asking someone questions about a topic you just learned about. I’m definitely still getting it down, but I’ve learned some tips along the way that I’ve found helpful, which you may or may not find useful.

1.) Be prepared with good questions

Before the interview occurs, go online and research everything you can find about your subject. What you’re looking for are ideas of what questions to ask and what questions have already been asked. You don’t what to repeat the same questions; it’s no fun for your subject or your readers. Usually, if you read in between the lines of other interviews, you’ll be able to find some interesting topics to bring up. The better questions you have, the more confidence you’ll have.

2.) Establish a rhythm to the interview

This is an underrated but necessary component to giving interviews. You’re talking to someone for the first time. You’ve read about them, but you have no idea what they’re like in real life — how they speak, how passionate they get, whether or not they like to talk much. So, as you pose the first couple of questions, try and find out these things. If they like to talk a lot, then let them talk — give it a couple seconds after they finish their sentences as they may go on. If they seem reserved, take the lead and help them open up by asking more general questions at first. Once a rhythm is started, both sides of the interview can feel it, and it makes the process much more fluid.

3.) Don’t read off your notepad

As funny as it sounds, treat the interview as a conversation, not an interview. Have a list of good questions to ask, but ask them only when it’s pertinent to do so. If the question doesn’t have much to do with what you and your subject are talking about, don’t completely switch topics by asking it. Instead, try and think of follow up questions that have to do with what’s being talked about at the moment — this is easier when you think of it as a conversation. If you just go down the list on your notepad, you’re missing chances to dwell deeper into subjects, and you’re making the process a lot more formal, which makes your subject feel less comfortable.

4.) Don’t be intimidated and have fun

You’re interviewing a NASA engineer about his breakthrough in rocket science — so what? Regardless of how accomplished or intelligent your subject may be, your job is to explain his work in simple terms so the public can understand it. Therefore, don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they sound stupid. If the subject looks down on you for it, then it’s their loss, because they will be missing a chance to educate people on their work. With that said, chances are the subject will be happy to answer all your questions, regardless of how simplistic they are. Use step one, though, and try not to ask any questions that have been posed before.

Also, try and view it as a unique and fun experience. When else are you going to have a conversation with a NASA rocket scientist? The more interested and less intimidated you are, the more stimulating the conversation will be.

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Who does this kid think he is?

Last week at my internship, I was put in a tough spot. On Thursday, I received a scathing phone call from a representative of an organization I had written a piece on. According to her, I had not only misspelled her name, but also listed a number of factual errors relating to the organization’s services within the community. I quickly checked the online version of the article and, sure enough, she was right.

Misspelling the names of people or organizations is a serious deal in journalism — freelancers usually don’t get hired again if their article contains any sort of factual error. At a publication I worked at last year, the copy editors kept a list of how many errors, or “CQs,” writers made. If they went over a certain number each quarter, they were penalized. So, naturally I was a little distraught after the phone call.

This is where the situation turned from bad to tough, though. I checked my draft of the piece, which was the version before the editors corrected it, and I found out that all my facts were correct. I had not misspelled any names or gotten any figures wrong. Whoever had corrected my piece had inserted the errors.

Now, as corny as it sounds, everyone makes mistakes, especially in the fast-paced world of journalism. I was a copy editor for a year, and I definitely missed some mistakes as well as inserted a few here and there accidentally. But, it was still frustrating to see so many errors — close to three — in a piece of work with my name on it.

To make things worse, I had published an online piece a week earlier with a misspelling in it (like I said, I’ve definitely made some errors, too), so I began to worry that my editor would begin to think I was some sort of factual-error-making machine.

As these thoughts ran through my mind, I opened my computer and began to write an email to my editor about the situation. It was then that I came to my dilemma: Is it my place, as an intern, to complain about an issue like this? Would it do any good to bring it up now after the piece has already been published? The copy editors are so understaffed and overworked; how will they react if I bring it up to them? Mistakes happen all the time in newspapers; does this one merit attention?

After much thought, I decided to send the email explaining the errors, what needs to be fixed and the frustration I had. I was worried that I would lose respect if I did not do so.

To this moment, I still do not know if my decision to bring up the issue was the right one. My editor never responded. The next day, no one — not even the copy editors — brought it up. I felt foolish and still do a little. Perhaps, as someone new to the industry, I still do not realize the human aspect of it all — how with so much different content circulating through each day, mistakes are inevitable.

 

What do you guys think? Did I make a big deal out of nothing? Am I STILL making a big deal out of nothing? After all, like I said, no one has really brought it up.

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Millennial journalists’ need for guidance

The past two internships I’ve been apart of, I’ve mostly worked with people older than me. I have not noticed a huge difference between the “boomers” or members of “generation X,” however, and I think that has to do with the field I’m apart of: journalism. To succeed in journalism these days, you have to constantly know your audience, which cuts down on the generational gap in the newsroom. For example, my editor, who is in his late 50s, is just as efficient with technology as I am — he has to be to in order for the publication to stay relevant.

In terms of my generation, the millenials, I believe we have a lot to offer. We’re very open-minded multi-taskers who have an eagerness to contribute to something significant. If we become passionate about something — writing, for example — then we will do our best to succeed at it. One disadvantage we bring to the table, though, is our constant need for guidance.

Everyone I know in my age group who is employed wants to do good by their boss; our generation has a huge desire to add to the discussion. But, with this desire comes a need for feedback. We’re so desperate to contribute that we’re constantly seeking approval to make sure we’re doing our work correctly. Without criticism — positive or negative — we tend to feel a little lost.

Specifically for journalists, in order to combat our neediness, there are a few things we have to learn.

First, other staff members already have a lot going on; they can’t watch every step you make and critique it.

Second, there is no training seminar provided by the publication before you start writing. Journalism is a learn-as-you-go type of job — you aren’t taught in school how to interview a drug addict, for example.  Eventually, after going into the field and immersing yourself in the story everyday, you’ll get the hang of it.

Third, if your editor isn’t screaming at you about the quality of your work, then everything is fine; newspapers are fast-paced, constantly moving businesses that expect quality output each day. If you aren’t being addressed, then that means your work is matching the quality output.

Of course, it is always good to still ask questions; you want to still learn from your coworkers and soak in as much information as you can. But, being a journalist sometimes requires you to learn out in the field rather than from others in the newsroom.

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Covering Occupy Portland

For my internship last week, I was assigned to cover Occupy Portland — the latest in a series of demonstrations across the country that began in mid-September as Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan’s financial district. Not only had I never covered a political event of any kind, but I had never been to any sort of political protest or march before, period. Once again, journalism opened my eyes to a new experience that I learned greatly from.

I had been following Occupy Wall Street closely, but I still found myself at times a tad bit confused about the group’s intentions. Although I tend to always agree with any sort of public display of disapproval with corporate America, OWS’s refusal to name a specific policy or institution made the meaning of their movement unclear to me, as well as many mainstream media outlets and audiences. So, I found this event to be an opportunity to not only help myself learn the significance of the protests, but also help other people understand what’s going on.

The main thing I learned covering the event was that the Occupy movement is not about targeting certain greedy individuals or companies that have created social and economic inequality. At this point, everyone involved in corporate America is doing it; the whole system is faulty. Instead, the march served as an opportunity to spark dialogue — people of all ages and races were able to tell their stories and opinions of the matter. Before the march, organizers created an “open forum,” where anyone could speak — from Iraqi veterans, to struggling college students, to organic farmers. Never before had I experienced such rich dialogue between people of so many  different walks of life.

After the forum, protesters holding signs that read “Tax the 1 %ers” and “Stop corporate greed” took to the streets of downtown, walking through the middle of the normally car-clogged streets of West Burnside and Broadway, which, as someone who has lived in Portland their whole life, was a tremendous experience for me.

Once the march settled in Chapman Square, I quickly ran to Starbucks, where I cranked out a piece. I had collected a large number of quotes from people who were eager to speak on the matter, and I believe it was their words that helped explain the significance of the event best.

Since being posted, the piece has generated numerous comments, continuing the dialogue and hopefully demonstrating people’s new-found understanding of the Occupy movement.

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Jack: the journalist of all trades

As young journalists, we are entering a world that is seeing some significant changes. Your teachers constantly spoke of it in college and, if you have an internship or a job with a publication right now, you definitely hear it from some of the older staff members. At my internship, I sit next to a layout designer who has been at the publication for over a decade; he always tells me how “hushed” the office is these days due to recent layoffs and budget cuts.

These types of stories aren’t very encouraging for those who are trying to pursue a career in the field. Sometimes you wonder, “Is it even possible at this point?” For me, this remains to be seen. But, through my work thus far in journalism, I have discovered that in order to give yourself a chance, you must be able to do a little bit of everything.

Now, although being a reporter and having multimedia skills, such as being able to take pictures and videos, is very useful these days in the newsroom, I’m talking more specifically about possessing the ability to be a multifaceted writer. The days of writing on one specific beat, unless you’re special, are pretty much over. You have to be willing to write about anything — even if it doesn’t interest you.

I’ve worked at three different publications, and each writer — aside from a few — covers a variety of beats. The music editor covers political debates; the news reporter does food reviews; the sports writer covers the ballet. That’s how most publications work these days.

So, you must be very open minded. And, you need to attain the skills to write both a hard news piece and a detail-rich commentary on the newest Ryan Gosling movie. Sound tough? Well, it sort of is. But, there’s definitely a plus side to it: You’re often introduced to a subject that you think won’t be interesting, and it’ll turn out to be fascinating. I wrote about medical waste management last week, for example — exciting, right? Well, it turns out there’s a new machine that turns syringes and other medical material into a paper-like confetti that’s recyclable. I thought that was pretty cool.

Plus, there’s a satisfying feeling to be had when you know you’re able to take on pretty much anything the editor throws your way. I haven’t quite reached this point yet, but I look forward to getting there one day. For now, I try to take on as many different assignments as I can.

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