Five things I learned this summer
By Jasmeet Sidhu
Alas, the summer has come to an end here for me at the Toronto Star. And as I’m about to willingly enter post-grad twenty-something limbo, I thought I would share 5 things I’ve learned during my chaotic yet exhilarating time working at the biggest newspaper in Canada, for current and potential Star interns.
1. Get comfortable with a camera
If you don’t already have your own point and shoot camera, get one. And practice taking photos for your stories. Basic photography skills are a must now for journalists. I found myself at various points in the summer awkwardly crawling around podiums for press conferences, creeping along Yonge St. trying to get strangers to pose for photos, and in general feeling extremely awkward with a camera in my hand, with plenty of bad photos to boot. But the photos had to get done, and they needed to get done right. I quickly learned from veteran photographers like Denis Cyr, Tim Finlan and Mike Kelly about things like negative space, angles, natural light, background noise, scene setters and more. Reporters are now expected to be equipped with basic multi-media skills – don’t get left behind.
2. Tape recorders – a useful reporting tool, but don’t depend on it
This tidbit of advice came from Kevin Scanlon, one of the nicest team editors in the place. I used to be a tape recorder junkie. I would come back from interviews, and spend an inordinate amount of time transcribing full-length interviews. Kevin told me it’s a huge time waster, and I now agree. What I do now (on the advice of Kevin), is to listen for the quotes during an interview -- you’ll know what you need just by listening. At first I didn’t believe him, but I soon realized what he was talking about. For most of the interview, you will probably end up using only one or two quotes from a source. Those are the ones you listen for in an interview, and jot down by hand in your notebook when you get them. Use the tape recorder only as a backup. When you head back to your computer to write the story, you have the quotes you need already written down, and don’t need to waste precious time transcribing lengthy interviews only to retrieve a quote or two.
3. Double, Triple, Quadruple check your facts: The foolproof method.
In an early training session, Kathy English, the Star’s public editor, informed us that the Toronto Star’s core product is not news, but credibility, and accuracy is the core of credibility. It is essential to get your facts right, but of course some things can slip by. A useful method to prevent those mistakes is to print out a physical copy of your finished story, and go through it line by line, highlighting anything that you think could be doubled checked -- names, dates, titles, organizations, street names, quotes, everything. Once that’s done, I go through all the highlighted parts, and double and triple check that I got them right. I sometimes call up sources again to double check their names and titles, I Google and check in the Star archives any names of organizations or facts that may have been referenced in past stories, and so on. Essentially through this method, I’ve been able to catch mistakes (such as the potential embarrassment of misspelling of someone’s last name) before they were able to make it to print or web (Thanks Emily Mathieu for teaching me this tip!)
4. Story ideas come from not where you look, but how you look at your world
Coming up with fresh stories for the paper can be tough. But a good piece of advice I got from Daniel Dale, Edward Goff Penny award winner for best young journalist this year, is that sometimes it’s not about where you look for story ideas, but about training your mind to find them in your existing world. He explained that it’s about being aware of your thoughts as you commute from home for example, and noticing when you think something you’ve seen is amusing or funny. It was through this method that I was able to write a story about mosquitoes, a random thought occurred to me on the topic. I was able to harness that thought into a front page story.
5. Get to know your fellow colleagues and ask for advice
As you can see from the previous four tips, much of what I’ve learned here at the Star came from other journalists, both veterans and relative newcomers. Personally, I never attended journalism school so I knew that there were a lot of practical tips on journalism that I could learn from the other reporters here, many of whom I had read in the paper and admired long before I ever worked here. I reached out to many of them via email, in good morning chats in the elevator, and in cups of coffee during slow news days. After everything I experienced this summer, I sometimes feel the best advice I’ve ever received so far is this comforting one from departing Star legend, assignment editor Nick van Rijn: “Jasmeet, there’s nothing experience can’t fix.”
Jasmeet Sidhu is a recent graduate of University of Toronto in peace and conflict studies. She worked as a summer intern for the Star this year, a radio room intern last summer, and sat on the Star’s community editorial board the summer before that. Follow her on Twitter or email at firstname.lastname@example.org