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What I learned working at the Free Press

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Interns (from left) Inayat Singh, Sarah Taylor, Jessica Botelho-Urbanski, Michael Shulman, Oliver Sachgau and Kyle Edwards.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Interns (from left) Inayat Singh, Sarah Taylor, Jessica Botelho-Urbanski, Michael Shulman, Oliver Sachgau and Kyle Edwards. Photo Store

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.

Pipe up

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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2014 A10

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