This summer, I worked my first ever job in the field of journalism. I was in a team with three other students, all from different majors and backgrounds, and our job was to interview and photograph people who were associated with our company for social media. Now, a couple weeks after my placement ended, I can say with certainty that it was one of the most eye-opening and fun experiences I’ve had.
Though I still have two years left of undergrad to finish first, I plan on doing a postgraduate degree in journalism and eventually turning that into a job. And although I’ve done some volunteer writing with my university’s blog and I’ve been writing articles online for about four years now, I’ve never had any professional or paid experience in journalism. I’ve only ever worked retail and done a couple things with social media, so this was welcome experience in what I hope becomes my future occupation.
As you can probably guess, this job was pretty different from anything I’ve done before, writing included. But I also like to think that my previous jobs prepared me for this role, too.
Here’s the thing: journalism, at least as it seems to me after a two-month interviewing placement, is about getting at the essence of a person and finding out what makes them tick. Especially within the parameters of my job, I had to get at the basic humanness of my interviewees—that is, what is most relatable on a basic level, and focus on that. Their struggles, their hardships, their successes… all of that stuff is what I had to focus on, and all of that stuff is what I needed to capture in order to make sure it connected with others. People care about people; they don’t care about companies. So you have to personalise it. Make it relatable, and highlight things everyone can understand and emphasize with.
I learned this summer that you have to figure out what people are interested in talking about and what they don’t want to talk about. I learned when to press people and when to step back and let them do the talking, when to ease up and let them get comfortable and when you can go deeper. And while I already knew that sometimes people just don’t want to talk, and you can’t force them, I also learned that sometimes people just need a little nudge and they’ll open up so beautifully.
But the thing is that I didn’t just learn all of that stuff this summer. I’ve been learning it without knowing it for the last few years when I worked in retail. Because if you think about it, a lot of sales is reading and analysing your customers. You start up small talk with them, ask them what they’re shopping for and then work off of that. You look at body language and other cues to figure out what they like or don’t like, because most of the time they won’t straight out tell you. You maybe make a small joke if they seem nervous, or adjust your demeanor to suit them a little better. The truth is, a lot of customer service in general is reading people and talking to them, and although I’m not going to go as far as to say good customer service will translate to good journalism, I certainly think it can help you build up some of the skills necessary for it.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure what specific field of journalism I want to go into—profiles, long-form journalism, think-pieces, etc.—but I do know what I have learned these last two months has helped me narrow it down a little. Every piece of journalism I admire and every journalist I admire deals with figuring out the basic humanity of a person (or persons) and highlighting or showcasing it. I love Anne Helen Peterson’s work for the way she’s able to really crack the shell of people or issues she profiles. I admire Nellie Bly and Gloria Steinem for their exposés uncovering issues women and marginalized groups went through and making them personal. I have a huge amount of respect for Ronan Farrow for the work he’s done with the Hollywood sexual assault scandals for how in-depth his work goes.
There’s still a lot I have to learn, but I also learned a lot this summer, too. And I hope to learn a lot more these next few years.