From the newsroom
The intricacies of bringing out a publication are varied and may. And that is why, there is more to making a journalist than expertise in newspaper history, superb writing skills, good contacts and a nose for news. A journalist cannot be seen independent of a newsroom, for that is what fashions much of what he creates. Here are some key lessons I learned in my years in the newsroom…
1. Planning a story:
A reporter is expected to succinctly state his story idea for the day during his meeting with the editor. Good reporters will plan their stories keeping in mind newsworthiness. Planning a story is about planning your day; smart reporters usually plan weeks ahead, and are ready to respond when major stories break. I found the exercise of jotting down my story ideas useful – even when most of them don’t fructify, they usually lead you on to other ideas.
2. Filing to deadline:
The newsroom has no patience for missed deadlines or for sloppy work, and reporters have to either shape up or ship out. As a reporter on the field, I was constantly aware of a clock ticking in my mind; I knew the desk would await my story; not writing to deadline was never an option. The only way to stick to deadline is to focus on the job at hand and get all relevant inputs.
3. To keep your readers in mind:
It’s all very well to come up with fancy story ideas, but it’s just as important to make it intelligible and relevant to the reader. Many entry-level journalists, fresh from writing college essays, believe the newspaper (or magazine) gives them a vehicle to express their literary flourishes. As a cub reporter, I tried to indulge in literary escapades, but the newsroom quickly demolished these flirtations; over time, I realised that a good story is more than just about sounding high-brow.
4. News peg:
So you think you’ve got a good story? Try convincing everyone during the edit meeting.
The edit meeting helps vet the good ideas from the not-so-good ones, and the most important criteria used to judge an idea is its newsworthiness. I’ve often found that a great story idea might sound flat because it might be disconnected to whatever’s currently happening. The reverse could also be true: a bland story idea can be turned into an interesting one if pegged on to a developing story.
5. Being on top of a beat:
As a reporter in a newsroom, you’re generally given charge of a ‘beat’. That means you are the ‘go-to’ person for any development in that beat. The most ‘happening’ beats are usually the political, crime and civic beats, for the newspapers’ consumers – the public – are more directly impacted by developments in politics, crime and local administration than anything else. These are challenging beats, and only a reporter who’s on top of his beat can hold his own in a newsroom. A reporter who misses stories, or gets his facts wrong, will quickly be exposed in a newsroom, and then it will be impossible for him to salvage his reputation.
6. Learning from other reporters:
One of the best things about the newsroom is the opportunity to learn from your peers in other beats. A few years on a beat tends to make you complacent, and that’s when you’re also vulnerable to sloppy work. The newsroom can be a great place to shake yourself off this complacency, for there will be reporters on other beats whose approach to stories and enthusiasm can be copied. I found it useful to study the work methods and writing techniques of my colleagues on other beats.
7. To fit your story in given space:
A journalist who has never spent time on the desk will never know how to tailor his story according to the page or the space in which it should appear. Every writer outside the newsroom will believe that each of his stories merits a front page lead, but a writer who understands the way the newsroom functions is invaluable to the desk. Such a writer saves the desk’s time by avoiding unnecessarily long stories or irrelevant details; even as he sits to write his copy, he will be able to envision its placement.
8. Feeling the buzz:
To me, one of the crucial aspects of being part of the newsroom was that news was always ‘in the air’, and you only needed to keep your antennae up. A newsroom is always abuzz; there is the chatter of the TV news channels and passionate arguments by proponents and opponents of the raging issues of the day. It is therefore easier to remain clued-in about developments when one is part of the newsroom rather than being isolated from it.
One of the pleasures of working on a desk is that you’re required to come up with headlines, sub-heads, blurbs and other elements to a story. This challenges you on several fronts – it tests your ability with words and your skill in fishing for the right word to fit given space. In effect, it’s a bit like playing a crossword with a deadline always looming just ahead. Copy well edited and a page made well is a pleasure as great as writing a good story.
10. Recognising the worth of a story:
The newsroom is a bit like a beehive – workers constantly go out and bring back something. As many of these ‘worker bees’ are serious professionals, they are invaluable sources of information. Working in this hive enables you to set exacting standards for the story you have in mind. I’ve often been tipped off by political reporters about developments in sports. As such, you stands a better chance of breaking a story if you are part of a newsroom. You rarely get this opportunity as a freelancer or independent journalist.
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