This summer I wore blazers. It was weird. And hot.
Gone were my summer staples of jean shorts and grubby T-shirts, save for one week in July when I escaped to the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Instead, I wore blazers, pencil skirts and what I hoped was appropriate office attire from the end of May through August. And although interning as a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press tested my sartorial skills, it more importantly confirmed why I decided to pursue a career in journalism -- it's pretty darn exciting.
There wasn't a day I came into the newsroom knowing for sure what I'd be up to, which might cause severe anxiety for some.
Take, for example, two back-to-back days in June when I interviewed former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and journalism legend Carl Bernstein, who helped break the Watergate scandal. I felt like my editors might have had a little too much faith in me, but they're the experts, right? They know what they're doing... right? Well, one can hope.
Last week, the Canadian journalism website J-source published a list of 11 mistakes to avoid as a newbie journalist. The points ranged from the obvious (don't write boring stories) to the not-so-obvious (don't be confused about empathy). The latter point was the most important lesson I learned at the Free Press: Always, always be empathetic.
"A reporter needs to be able to empathize with absolutely any human being. No exceptions -- and that includes murderers, rapists and terrorists," wrote Zev Singer, a reporter and editor at the Ottawa Citizen, for J-source.
I interviewed more than 180 people this summer (I think). I tried to keep an accurate count, but screw it -- I'm a writer, not a statistician. Whether interviewing a hyperactive kid or a relative grieving the loss of a loved one, trying to relate to the interviewee was always goal No. 1.
While I could have used J-source's list of mistakes to avoid much sooner than the last week of August, I'm glad to have learned many lessons on my own. Here are a few points that could help most journalism interns, and not just the ones working at newspapers.
Whether on an assignment or in the office, always ask questions, even stupid ones -- especially stupid ones. When interviewing an expert in a field where you have little knowledge, if you don't ask simple questions, you won't get simple answers. Readers need and want simple answers, not jargon.
Don't be a fly on the wall
In already awkward situations, such as reporting on a funeral, there's no sense trying to hide. You're already intruding on a sensitive situation, so if you do so with genuine curiosity and kindness, things might not be so tense.
Pitch, swing and sometimes miss
When I wasn't loaded up with assignments, I pitched story ideas. Although some were duds, others -- usually the most unexpected ones -- took off. Here's a tip: People really like reading about hitchhiking robots and fire hydrants.
Get out more
As tired as I was at the end of each work week, I never regretted going out with co-workers and fellow interns to socialize, not to mention going out with normal, non-newsy friends and family, too. Having a social life outside work kept me sane, and having conversations about something other than work often produced great story ideas.
Send a thank-you card
A handwritten thank-you card can leave a great final impression. After I interned at the Free Press last winter, I mailed a card to the editors at city desk, thanking them for their help. Little did I know when I came back this summer, that card would still be sitting on their shared desk. 'Maybe that's why they brought me back for the summer internship -- they liked the card,' I thought. Or maybe they just really liked my blazers.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski usually blogs about buses at WinnipegTransitTalks.com, but for this post she made an exception. She is studying journalism in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.