For many journalists, a degree from a school of journalism is involved. I won’t knock it. In my case, I just studied a lot. But oddly, my college degrees aren’t in journalism; they’re in music and divinity.
I regret nothing. After all, that schooling prepared me well to write, write and write some more. My studies included an elective in creative writing and lots of term papers. After school, my work experience included writing weekly sermons, assisting the editor of a Christian magazine, case managing mentally ill adults and some sales and marketing.
OK, so none of that screams “I’m going to be a journalist.” But all parts of my education and work experience have come in handy since my life turned out that way.
English: Two important classes I took in school were an AP English class in 12th grade and an advanced composition class in college.
Reading good books and scrutinizing how they work was part of the first. The second focused on using strong nouns and verbs to power sentences and cutting the fat out of prose.
Perhaps the most useful parts of both classes were the writing assignments: crafting blue-book essays under time pressure; keeping a journal to build a daily habit of writing.
Social studies: History is good to know, but it’s your civics and government classes that will come back to you on a weekly basis when you’re covering city councils and school boards.
Also, when you file public data requests, study criminal complaints and pour over government reports, a familiarity with legal jargon and First Amendment case law can help. What you didn’t know before, you will learn along the way.
Math: I’m not kidding. You’ll look back on all the times you muttered “When am I ever going to use this?” in algebra class and shake your head as you comb through audit reports, tax levies, budgets and endless statistical tables to find the numbers that matter to people at home. Before you can explain why they matter, you’ll have to understand them.
Science: Even when you’re not reporting on medical and scientific topics, you’ll be thankful you paid attention in science class when you realize that everything you hear or read has a margin of error.
Part of being an effective reporter is knowing how to name your sources, verify what you think they said, use qualifying language and, at times, issue corrections or updates.
You don’t just say what you believe. You clue the reader in about your cluelessness and assert only what you can prove.
Physical education: There’s a whole area of journalism known as sports reporting. It’s an honorable profession, and it’s always in need of writers who understand the game.
Business, technology and computer science: Even a general assignment reporter sometimes has to cover these areas. So, knowing a thing or two about them won’t hurt.
Also, they’ll affect your work on a deeper level, as you adapt to the financial reality of an advertising-driven publication, use digital gizmos, search the web and master high-powered software in the pursuit of stories.
Music and the arts: Opportunities to write about things of beauty can be among the rewards of a newspaper career and can also create joy for readers.
Underwater basket-weaving: I’m kidding. However, the weird and unexpected does come up in the news racket, surprisingly often. Knowing how to spot it, appreciate it and share it is one of the things that makes newspapering fun.
I once got to write a headline that had the phrase “tractor rustlers” in it. I still get a kick out of it.
One of my coworkers got to do a story about the theft of a giant, inflatable unicorn. Solid gold!
And in a newspaper contest that I recently judged, I fell in love with a headline that read roughly, “If you took a shot every time a member of the city council yelled ‘Point of order!’ you would be dead.”
With the right attitude, I think almost anybody would enjoy working for a newspaper. Every day is different – some good, some sad, some scary; now and then, some downright weird. But you’ll always have someone to tell about it. That’s what our business is all about.