Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to motivate those readers who still don’t know what they’re doing in college (read: undeclared majors) into becoming reporters. Really, no matter what happens to newspapers, there will still be a demand for people who can report the news, I swear.
Assuming that you’ve now decided to become a reporter (because I’m so convincing!), now you need some advice. Where do you go? How do you get started? Who can help?
To get the answers to your most urgent questions, I interviewed Stephen Magagnini, one of the most experienced reporters in California.
Magagnini has worked at The Sacramento Bee for 24 years and has been a journalist since 1976. He has reported extensively on race and ethnicity as well as reporting from places as far-flung as the Ukraine and Belarus. He has received numerous commendations for his stories and was more than happy to take some time out of his busy day to help you, the greenhorn reporter, get on the right track.
What’s a good way to get started as a journalist?
“A terrific way to hone [your reporting] ability is to work for your college newspaper or college broadcast media or to freelance stories through local media,” he said.
Getting a job at The Aggie, for one, isn’t as hard as you might think. Come on down any time to 25 Lower Freeborn and pick up a reporter’s application. The most important thing we or any other publication is looking for is writing ability. We can teach you a lot of things, but if you know how to write coherently you’ll save both parties a lot of time.
If you don’t want to work for The Aggie but still want to get published (or we don’t accept your application), you become a freelance reporter. This means that you report on a story, write it and then submit it to publications you think might be interested.
But how do you know what to write about?
“You need to pretend that you’re an editor or producer or website content creator and think about the kind of stuff you need to know,” Magagnini said. “What’s some news that you can use? What would make your life better? Think about the kind of stuff you would read and consume.”
Any story you can think of that makes a positive impact on the reader’s daily life is news someone can use. This means that this is news some editor would like to publish. But if you want to be successful, it’s not as easy as just reporting it, writing it and sending it off to a dozen different publications.
“[You need to] complete the story and submit it with a query letter which says why this is such a smoking hot story and how it’s perfect for the publication you’re submitting it to,” Magagnini said.
Keep in mind when writing your query letter that it reflects what you know about the publication (which means you need to know about the publication).
“I also believe in polite persistence,” he said. “If you can, visit the media in person; I’m big on selling yourself in person. If you can get some face time with a human being, that’s better than no face time.
“All media is being inundated with applications from laid off journalists or college graduates,” he said. “I think you’ve gotta try everything and give yourself every opportunity.“
It’s important to keep in mind that even if a publication doesn’t want to hire you (or hasn’t published your previous freelance submissions), you should keep trying; editors are always interested in new content.
As you continue to write more stories, your reporting abilities will improve. Each journalist is different and better at some aspects of the job than others. Maybe you’re quite adept at interviews and getting good quotes, but you need to work on making your sentences flow.
In next week’s column, I’ll go over some of the basics of reporting. In the meantime, Magagnini spoke about what he believes is the most critical asset for any reporter to have.
“What remains the most important criteria is the ability to identify and execute clear and accurate well-written content,“ he said.
In other words, write clearly about interesting topics consistently and you should be fine! Tune in next week for some more tips.
RICHARD PROCTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.