How to Be a Reporter

How To Be a (Shiver) Reporter

By Linda Sherwood

Looking for a career as a newspaper reporter? Or just looking for some extra money while you wait for the first royalty checks from your promising book to start coming in? Try taking a walk to your local newspaper office.

It is unlikely you will be able to snag a job at a large, daily paper without a college degree or years of experience, but you can snag a permanent or semi-permanent job at a smaller newspaper without formal training. Requirements for reporters at these smaller papers are less stringent. While you won’t get rich working at these smaller papers, it is a great educational experience and it can be a steady paycheck.

After my second child, I decided to give up my full-time job as an editor for a daily paper. On my first day of being home, I wandered into the offices of the local weekly paper. Intending to leave my name and resume in case they ever need an extra hand, I walked away with a part-time job that I was able to do primarily from my home.

Reporting requires a bit of flexibility. You don’t work a 9 to 5 schedule. You may have to cover sports events or meetings that occur in the evening or on the weekends. It is possible to make these events a part of your regular life and not infringing on your home life. For example, I go to my library’s story hour. I take my children with me, along with a notebook and camera. My children enjoy the story hour. I snap a couple of pictures for the paper. I take notes on the event and end up with a photo story for the paper.

The best part about working for a small paper, most likely a weekly, is its flexibility. You can learn the ins and outs of all the various aspects of the business. You can write the stories, take the photos, edit copy, layout the paper and even design ads. Your ability to do a number of different tasks is the best training you can get when you decide to move up to a larger paper.

There are a few basic tenets you should know if you want to write for a newspaper be it a daily or a weekly. Writing for newspapers is a style of writing all its own. There is absolutely no room for the reporter’s opinion. Both sides of the story need to be told.

The newspaper style has changed since the 8th grade journalism class that taught you to write in an inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid style dictated the most important elements be told first. The least important items were relegated to the end. This was done so the last paragraph could be cut off if it was necessary to allow the article to fit in the allotted space. Often the last few paragraphs were throw away to offer flexibility in the layout of the paper. Today, most papers are laid out using a computer and the inverted pyramid is no longer necessary. Today, it’s still important to keep the important elements in the story. However, it is no longer necessary to add “fluff” at the end of the story. After all, if the paragraph is “cuttable,” why use it?

Another 8th grade journalism myth is that you have to use the “5W1H” in the first sentence. For the uninitiated, 5W1H is the basic questions a journalist should answer in an article. Who? What? Where? Why? When? How? Many of those elements, especially the when element in a weekly paper, can be inserted deeper into the article.

Often, the first sentence will determine whether the reader continues to read the rest of the article. For some stories, a “teaser” opening sentence is more appropriate than the bare facts. The opening sentence should pique the reader’s interest. It should make them want to know more and make them want to read more.

For example, last spring I wrote an article about bears coming out of hibernation and raiding the bird feeders of area residents. The community I write for was also waiting the much anticipated opening of its first (it’s a very small community) fast food restaurant. The annual “beware of bears” article was able to take on a new spin and become fresh based on the happenings in the area. My opening line was:

“After waking up after a long winter’s nap, bears in the area aren’t waiting for Lake City’s newest fast food restaurant to open. Instead the hungry bears are finding the next best thing, bird feeders.”

The next paragraph was a straight explanation of the problem. I quoted residents who had bear raids on their bird feeders. I quoted a wildlife expert on how to prevent bears from raiding bird feeders.

In general, try to make the opening line an attention getter. It doesn’t have to be humorous, but it should make the reader who is scanning the headlines want to know more.

If you want to write for your newspaper, invest in a copy of The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. The book is updated yearly and runs about $15 for a new edition. You may be able to get a used edition from a college bookstore. Used by most newspapers, it sets the guidelines for capitalization, abbreviation, spelling, numerals and usage. It will tell you to spell out the numbers one through nine, but to use numerals for anything higher than 10. It will tell you whether you need a space or a hyphen when you use “half” in combination with another word such as halfback, half brother, and half-baked. It can give you the exact name for standard initial agencies like the FBI, AFL-CIO and AMVETS. It will tell you whether traveling should be spelled with one ‘L” or two.

When you write the article, use short paragraphs and short sentences. When the article is converted into columns, long wordy paragraphs lose the interest of the reader. One sentence can be a paragraph in journalistic writing.

A few other basics to newspaper writing may seem obvious. Meet deadlines. Question facts. Get the facts straight. Verify names and their spellings. Verify dates and places. Use accurate quotes. When using numbers, verify the numbers add up. If there are five people involved, make sure you list all five names. If the budget is made up of 20,000, make sure the way it breaks down adds up to $20,000.

Remember, especially when working for a small paper, that you may need to talk to your source again and again. If your work isn’t accurate, the source may not be willing to talk to you again.

Do you need a college education to be a reporter? It depends on your goals. If your goal in life is to be a journalist, then yes, you do need a college education. If you want to be a reporter until something else comes along, then a college education isn’t required. Most journalism degrees require a student to take a vast array of subjects and set a limit on the number of journalism classes allowed. Truly, a journalist is meant to be a Jack of All Trades and a master of none. A few journalism writing courses could teach you the mechanics you need to be a successful reporter without investing in a degree.

A reporter at a weekly paper with a small circulation can make $8 to 14,000 a year and a college degree may be helpful, but not required. With a relatively low income, the degree is actually not worth the financial investment. An editor or a reporter at a larger circulation paper where the salary can be $25,000 and up will require a college education. The income also makes it more feasible to invest in a college degree.