In a couple weeks, I will appear as part of a career-day panel at my daughter’s high school. (This ranks somewhere between “horrifying” and “embarrassing” to her, by the way.) I’m going to be joined by a former TV guy and a woman who has her own communications firm.
In order to prepare, the school has asked me to consider what traits are important in my chosen field. That’s an interesting question. Here’s my first-blush answer:
- Curiosity. I don’t think you can be a good journalist without being curious about the world around you. If you don’t honestly want to sidle up to the guy who is watching his home burn to the ground or ask the corporate CEO how she plans to return her company to profitability or talk to the shortstop after the big game, you just aren’t going to be very good at this. I generally ask new reporter candidates if they have any story ideas based on what little they know about our community at that point. If the candidate can’t come up with a couple, based on the people he saw in the street, the weather, the geography, the traffic and everything else he has observed, he probably isn’t very curious about our town. …
- Smarts. This is hard to define and not necessarily tied to education. It’s one of those things you know when you see. You can probably look around and point to the smartest person in the room with you (don’t do it!). It may or may not be the guy with an advanced degree. Higher education can help you learn to learn and the practice you get at college helps you distill information to the important nuggets. Education is a predictor of success. But we all know folks who are street smart and that counts too. Many, many great reporters never graduated from college.
- Confidence. I’m going to let you in on an arrogant little secret: I’m not easily intimidated. I think I can parachute into any news situation, sift out the extraneous stuff, convince the players to speak to me and produce an accurate and engaging news story faster than any other reporter in the room. Now, that ain’t necessarily so. But I believe it. And that belief serves me well.
- Work ethic. Lots of professions require a strong work ethic. That doesn’t make us different. That said, I notice that journalists aren’t the ones rushing out the door when the clock strikes 5 p.m. News is a 24/7 thing. Nuff said.
- A reader. Here is the most fundamental building block of any kind of storytelling: You simply can’t be a good writer (or videographer, or radio producer, or blogger) unless you enjoy reading. I always ask reporting candidates what they are reading. Whatever it is isn’t so important, but if the answer is a prolonged silence, she won’t be working for me. Just how reading aids in our ability to assimilate facts and understand the human condition ourselves is one of the great mysteries. But you can’t be a good writer unless you are a good reader.
- An agreeable temperament. Every dysfunctional newsroom has at least one hothead. Every single one. The job is stressful. The expectations sometimes border on the unfair. The hours are often sorry. It’s easy to see why people blow up. The best reporters and editors understand that mistakes will happen and tomorrow’s another opportunity.
What am I leaving out? I’m sure there are other traits I should mention to the students. Help me out by leaving a comment below.