Five things I wish I knew before starting j-school

Welcome to j-school, new students of 2012 — you need not fear under-preparedness. In an effort to help new students start off on the right foot, J-Source’s summer reporter and fourth-year Ryerson journalism student Angelina Irinici recalls the five things she wishes someone had told her before she started journalism school.

1.You’ll need thicker skin

Welcome to j-school, new students of 2012 — you need not fear under-preparedness. In an effort to help new students start off on the right foot, J-Source’s summer reporter and fourth-year Ryerson journalism student Angelina Irinici recalls the five things she wishes someone had told her before she started journalism school.

1.You’ll need thicker skin

I’m a sensitive person — I mean that. I cry during sad movies and books and admit I’ve even shed a few tears during those commercials that really pull at your heart-strings. I still get a pang of sadness when I see a homeless person — and in downtown Toronto that’s a few times a day — so you can imagine how I felt when I was told to stand up and answer a question on my first day of j-school and then got it wrong. I guessed at the answer, my instructor was unimpressed and I slumped down in my seat, vowing to never answer a question again.

It didn’t get much better when I did my first real phone interview and a spokesperson for the City of Toronto wouldn’t answer my questions after telling me that my research was inadequate and my questions were unclear. From hearing others’ stories, this isn’t the worst of it.

Some people are very cautious of the media and because your name has ‘journalist’ attached to it they may think you’re going take what they say and spin it into a web of lies. Of course, that isn’t true. I have been hung up on, yelled at and lied to — and I’m still a student too. Instead of taking this personally (which I truly know is easier said than done) you need to take a deep breath, stay professional and try again. Do your research and your homework and someone will give you what you need. And like I said: I’ve been hung up on and yelled at but I’ve also been treated with much respect, met wonderful people and been thanked for telling a story — and so will you.


2. A student journalist is still a journalist.

After consulting with a number of other student journalists about their biggest obstacle in j-school many said the same thing:  sources don’t take them as seriously because they are a student journalist. While saying, “Hi, my name is X and I’m a journalism student at X working on a story about X for an assignment” isn’t the same as saying you’re from The Globe and Mail, you are still a journalist and need to act the part. This means if you’re at a press conference with your school camera don’t get shoved out of the way by big media organizations. Stand your ground and get your shot. Though usually, those working with the big media organizations are more helpful than anything. 

Another word of advice: a wise reporting instructor told me to always tell your sources that your story is for possible publication. She’s right — regardless of what it’s about and for what class, you never know who may pick it up or if you want to try and sell it afterward. So, keep that in mind when you’re writing it. Some sources will talk to you under the guise that it’s off-the-record because your story is “just an assignment.” But you can’t publish quotes that are off-the-record.

A student journalist is still a journalist and should act like one — school assignment or not.


3.Things take longer than you think and deadlines come quicker than you think.

This I’ve definitely learned the hard way. You think you’ve got lots of time to get to a press conference, but after battling with endless traffic, your GPS sending you the wrong way and the room you’re looking for is an extra five minute walk through a huge building you’ll most likely be late. Always give yourself more time than you think you need. Journalists should always be more than punctual — you should be the first one there and the last to leave.  

I find that technology will do the same to you. Think you can edit that crew piece in an hour? Think again – when technology works perfectly it’s wonderful, but most often than not something will go wrong and you’ll spend your first hour troubleshooting the problem.

Deadlines work the same way. As novelist Douglas Adams said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” That’s very true if you’re not careful. Don’t ever leave anything to the last minute: a short news story, a feature, a radio piece, etc. because things take longer than you expect. As a journalist you want all of your work to be professional and that’s difficult when you’re recording voiceovers in a rush or writing the lede to a feature without the time to get really creative.

Don’t be afraid to write, re-write then write some more. 


4. Know what’s going on: read and consume news all the time.

Journalists should always have a good idea of what’s going on. A lot of the time as soon as I mention that I’m studying journalism I’m asked for my opinion: What do I think of Jean Charest’s campaign for the Quebec election? Did I hear about the latest on Hurricane Isaac?

Although it’s impossible to know everything about everything it’s good to have a general understanding of the country and world’s big news stories and the people involved. Not only is it somewhat embarrassing when someone asks and you haven’t a clue who Canada’s flag bearer at the Olympics was, but it also makes writing stories a lot harder. The more general knowledge you have the easier research will be; instead of reading up on the whole Jerry Sandunsky scandal, you can simply verify information in your story. It also helps you link ideas and previous news in your stories. Writing about the cuts to Postmedia? It would help you to know that the company sold its Toronto office for $24 million to help repay debts. Those seemingly small details add context and extra information to your story.

Accessing news is easier than it’s ever been. Even if it’s reading headlines on Twitter on your way to school or picking up a free daily in the subway, you’re still more in the know than you were before. The same professor whose question I incorrectly answered also told me that journalists are the best at cocktail parties because we know a little bit about everything — enough to chat for a minute or two, then run off to the washroom when the conversation gets deeper.


5. Get involved and get experience (but don’t stress if you haven’t yet)

Don’t be intimidated by the girl who spent her summer working for a fashion magazine in Paris or the guy who says he’s interviewed tons of big celebrities. Everyone is learning new things at j-school and you’re sitting right next to those people for a reason. Instead of their experience getting you down let it get you going. 

You’ll hear this from everyone — your instructors, other students, your mom — but it really is true: get experience. Write for the campus paper(s) or join the radio or television stations (or both!). Getting experience outside of school is another great option — volunteer, get experience and clippings. Just be sure to be careful of the balance between unpaid work and volunteer experience. It’s important to have work that you are proud of and that doesn’t mean it’s been published in a mainstream publication. Community bulletins, startup websites and independent magazines are a good place to start. Contact your local television or radio station and see if there is any way you could contribute — you never know where it could lead.