BLOG OF THE WEEK: What I learned work­ing at the Free Press


SundayXtra - - FRONT PAGE - By Jes­sica Botelho-Ur­ban­ski

THIS sum­mer I wore blaz­ers. It was weird. And hot. Gone were my sum­mer sta­ples of jean shorts and grubby T-shirts, save for one week in July when I es­caped to the Win­nipeg Folk Fes­ti­val.

In­stead, I wore blaz­ers, pen­cil skirts and what I hoped was ap­pro­pri­ate of­fice at­tire from the end of May through Au­gust. And al­though in­tern­ing as a re­porter at the Win­nipeg Free Press tested my sar­to­rial skills, it more im­por­tantly con­firmed why I de­cided to pur­sue a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism — it’s pretty darn ex­cit­ing.

There wasn’t a day I came into the news­room know­ing for sure what I’d be up to, which might cause se­vere anx­i­ety for some. Take, for ex­am­ple, two back-to-back days in June when I in­ter­viewed for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Jean Chré­tien and jour­nal­ism leg­end Carl Bern­stein, who helped break the Water­gate scan­dal. I felt like my edi­tors might have had a lit­tle too much faith in me, but they’re the ex­perts, right? They know what they’re do­ing... right? Well, one can hope.

Last week, the Cana­dian jour­nal­ism web­site J-source pub­lished a list of 11 mis­takes to avoid as a new­bie jour­nal­ist. The points ranged from the ob­vi­ous (don’t write bor­ing sto­ries) to the not-so- ob­vi­ous (don’t be con­fused about em­pa­thy). The lat­ter point was the most im­por­tant les­son I learned at the Free Press: Always, always be em­pa­thetic.

“A re­porter needs to be able to em­pathize with ab­so­lutely any hu­man be­ing. No ex­cep­tions — and that in­cludes mur­der­ers, rapists and ter­ror­ists,” wrote Zev Singer, a re­porter and ed­i­tor at the Ottawa Ci­ti­zen, for J-source.

I in­ter­viewed more than 180 peo­ple this sum­mer (I think). I tried to keep an ac­cu­rate count, but screw it — I’m a writer, not a statis­ti­cian. Whether in­ter­view­ing a hy­per­ac­tive kid or a rel­a­tive griev­ing the loss of a loved one, try­ing to re­late to the in­ter­vie­wee was always goal No. 1.

While I could have used J-source’s list of mis­takes to avoid much sooner than the last week of Au­gust, I’m glad to have learned many lessons on my own. Here are a few points that could help most jour­nal­ism in­terns, and not just the ones work­ing at news­pa­pers. Whether on an as­sign­ment or in the of­fice, always ask ques­tions, even stupid ones — es­pe­cially stupid ones. When in­ter­view­ing an ex­pert in a field where you have lit­tle knowl­edge, if you don’t ask sim­ple ques­tions, you won’t get sim­ple an­swers. Read­ers need and want sim­ple an­swers, not jar­gon.

Don’t be a fly on the wall

In al­ready awk­ward sit­u­a­tions, such as re­port­ing on a fu­neral, there’s no sense try­ing to hide. You’re al­ready in­trud­ing on a sen­si­tive sit­u­a­tion, so if you do so with gen­uine cu­rios­ity and kind­ness, things might not be so tense.

Pitch, swing and some­times miss

When I wasn’t loaded up with as­sign­ments, I pitched story ideas. Al­though some were duds, oth­ers — usu­ally the most un­ex­pected ones — took off. Here’s a tip: Peo­ple re­ally like read­ing about hitch­hik­ing ro­bots and fire hy­drants.

Get out more

As tired as I was at the end of each work week, I never re­gret­ted go­ing out with co-work­ers and fel­low in­terns to so­cial­ize, not to men­tion go­ing out with nor­mal, non-newsy friends and fam­ily, too. Having a so­cial life out­side work kept me sane, and having con­ver­sa­tions about some­thing other than work of­ten pro­duced great story ideas.

Send a thank-you card

A hand­writ­ten thank-you card can leave a great fi­nal im­pres­sion. Af­ter I in­terned at the Free Press last win­ter, I mailed a card to the edi­tors at city desk, thank­ing them for their help. Lit­tle did I know when I came back this sum­mer, that card would still be sit­ting on their shared desk. ‘Maybe that’s why they brought me back for the sum­mer in­tern­ship — they liked the card,’ I thought. Or maybe they just re­ally liked my blaz­ers. Jes­sica Botelho-Ur­ban­ski usu­ally blogs about buses at Win­nipegTran­sitTalks.

com, but for this post she made an ex­cep­tion. She is study­ing jour­nal­ism in the Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­gram

at Red River Col­lege.


In­terns (from left) Inayat Singh, Sarah Tay­lor, Jes­sica Botelho-Ur­ban­ski, Michael Shul­man, Oliver Sach­gau and Kyle Ed­wards. Pipe up

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