Through the years, I have been asked by some aspiring journalists about what it takes to become a newspaper reporter.
They would tell me that they did very well in high school and college writing classes and thought that would translate in to becoming a good reporter.
Certainly, the ability to write well is important if you want to become a newspaper reporter. But I would also advise them that it takes more than being a good writer to become a good newspaper reporter.
The profession is more difficult than you might think.
Not only must you be a wordsmith, you need to have a well-rounded education, be inquisitive – someone who is not afraid to ask the “tough” question – and write accurately.
I once had an editor tell me that he felt the most important tool a reporter should possess is the ability to be accurate. In fact, he made all of his reporters place a sign on their desk that read: “ACCURACY! ACCURACY! ACCURACY!” I don’t remember what happened to my sign, but I never forgot his message. I always stressed accuracy in the newsrooms where I worked.
Newspapers are also produced under tight deadlines so you’ll need to be able to write fast.
A good reporter also needs to be able to write a story that is understandable to readers. If the reporter doesn’t understand what he or she is writing about, then neither will the reader.
Many reporters get tripped up on budget stories when they have to work with lots of numbers. I would tell reporters to ask those who are in charge of budgets to explain the process to them.
I always considered myself an inquisitive reporter. I tried to find out things that no other reporters knew. I like to think that I had my fair share of scoops.
But I also had some gaffes along the way.
When I worked in Del Rio, Texas, I interviewed a very attractive woman who was appearing as a dancer at a local night club. I remember her as being an interesting subject and I thought I had written a pretty good story about her.
But when I turned the story in to the news editor, he started laughing. “Do you know who you interviewed?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “She worked for Jack Ruby,” he informed me.
For those of you who don’t remember, Jack Ruby was the Dallas nightclub owner who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
My news editor was from Texas so obviously he knew more about Jack Ruby than I did. Still, I felt I had lost a great opportunity to write one of the best stories ever in my career.
Newspaper reporting has also changed through the years. When I began my career, the inverted pyramid style of writing was imperative. The idea was to put all the most important newsworthy information at the beginning of a story. We were taught that the five W’s (who what, where, when and why) and H (how) should be answered early in a story.
No one knows for sure when the inverted pyramid style was adopted, but I remember a college professor telling us that the style of writing became popular with the invention of the telegraph.
While the telegraph was a huge tool for distributing news, it was also expensive for newspaper publishers. So they stressed to editors the importance of putting essential information at the beginning of a story.
Some historians believe that the inverted pyramid style of writing took off following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Reporters, wanting to get the news out as soon as possible, wrote about the shooting of Lincoln by putting all the key information at the beginning.
The inverted pyramid also has been an important tool for newspapers through the years because of space limitations. Editors want the ability to cut stories because of limited space in newspapers. By writing in inverted pyramid style, readers could still get all the information they need without having to read the entire story.
With the advent of the Internet and different approaches to reporting the news, the inverted pyramid style of writing isn’t as critical as it once was. But studies still show that readers don’t care for long, drawn-out stories.
Reporting the news has changed dramatically in the past few years. Reporters are now required to report the news “24/7.” This means that no matter what time of the day the news breaks, reporters must prepared to write the story so that it can go up on the newspaper’s website.
During the past year, for example, the Tribune has reported on quite a few “fast-breaking” stories.
Newspaper reporting can be fun and rewarding. For example, the Tribune news staff showed that through its outstanding accomplishments in the Associated Press writing competition – winning nine awards. It is one of the Tribune’s best performances in my recollection.
But also remember, above all, that news reporting takes skill and dedication.