My experience as a reporter in D.C. started with four years of working for zero compensation: no money, no course credit, not even a free T-shirt.
You could say that was excellent training for today’s lousy journalism market. But my time at Georgetown University – during which I wrote for THE HOYA’s younger next-door neighbor, The Georgetown Voice – taught me more about reporting than just how to suffer for it.
It helps that journalism isn’t the most complicated job in the world: You ask questions, ask some more, then write up the answers in a way that makes people want to read. A good liberal arts education ought to teach most of those skills, but even then Georgetown didn’t amount to an obvious classroom for them – the School of Foreign Service didn’t have a single journalism class for me to take. Yet in some weird way that lack of institutional support made Georgetown a good place to learn the basics of this business. I’ve included some of the most important tidbits I learned over the years.
1. Don’t wait for story assignments. There was nothing mandatory about signing up to write for THE HOYA or The Voice my freshman year. You had to hike up to the fourth floor of the Leavey Center to volunteer. And if you didn’t have a half-decent idea for an article to suggest to an editor, you might wait for a writing opportunity. To this day, my first words of advice to any freelance writer are “Solve an editor’s problem – suggest a story instead of asking for one.”
2. Write quickly and cleanly. Having a full schedule of classes and a part-time job did not leave much time for students at either paper to polish their prose or edit that of others. Neither did the limited inventory of computers in each office. That experience provided tough, consistent and immensely valuable practice in the art of filing clean copy in a hurry – something even more vital now that most of my writing appears in blog or Twitter form. (Those time constraints also helped me learn a different skill useful in journalism: taking short naps.)
3. Take criticism graciously. Experienced editors usually try to let a reporter down gently when editing badly written copy, while the same may not be true of tired, stressed fellow students. But if you can cope with a cranky colleague venting frustration by taking it out on your draft, you can also deal with readers who may show far less tact in criticizing your work.
4. Don’t be afraid to make people angry. One of the last stories I wrote looked into why the university had not asked President Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) to speak at the SFS graduation in 1993 and instead invited Librarian of Congress James Billington (who, for the record, gave a fine speech himself). I stayed up all night to finish a paper after we put that issue to bed, which meant I was there in the Voice office when the phone rang at around 8 a.m. It was then-SFS Dean Peter Krogh, calling to chew me out for the effrontery of asking Billington’s office for comment. If you don’t mind eliciting such a reaction – or if you secretly enjoy it – you may be journalist material, too.
5. Competition is good. If you’re the only person writing about something, it may be tempting to skip making that one last call or double-checking that one last detail in a story that you tell yourself “you just know.” But if somebody else is waiting to beat you to the story, you won’t want that competitor – whether it’s a blogger you’ve never met or the newspaper next door – to get there first. So from this Voicer: Congratulations and a tip of the hat to THE HOYA on making it to 90 years.
Rob Pegoraro (SFS ’93) is a consumer technology columnist for The Washington Post.”