College clubs are a great way to get your feet wet before entering the professional world. Many students who work on their college newspapers go on to pursue jobs in journalism, and many don't - either way, the experience of interviewing authority figures and working under deadline is a valuable one. Even better, the campus environment offers a protective buffer against some of the real-life pitfalls plaguing the industry today, like newsroom layoffs. Even if somehow you do get fired from your campus beat, you can always take up improv or club volleyball next semester.
That said, there are some predictable mistakes many newbie reporters make that are easy to avoid. I put together this list of the Top 10 based on my own experience as editor-in-chief of my college paper and an informal Twitter poll.
- Interviewing your roommate. This may seem like a tempting proposition when you're new on campus and still learning everybody's names. But if you consistently quote your roommate, section mates, fraternity brothers or sorority sisters in your stories, people will notice - especially on a small campus. Do yourself a favor and broaden your scope - it's a fun, easy way to meet new people and start conversations.
- Not being prepared. You wouldn't show up at a job interview wearing sweats and having barely browsed through the company's website. Approach your interviews the same way, especially if they involve high-profile visiting speakers or campus administrators. Don't ask people questions you could easily Google; come prepared with a list of relevant questions that expand on what you already know. "Doing your homework" prior to interviews is beneficial in more ways than one - in addition to saving yourself and your interviewees' time, sources will be impressed with your prep work and reassured that you understand the topic, meaning they'll be more likely to share sensitive information with you.
- Missing the bigger picture. Sometimes a small story is just a small story, but more often there's a scoop to be had if you just dig a little deeper. I can't tell you how many times I've edited stories that skim the surface of fascinating issues but fall short of actually fleshing them out. This may also be a symptom of adhering too rigidly to your assignment - stories change, and if your research and interviews end up taking you in a different direction than what you'd initially anticipated, be prepared to go with the flow and shift your focus accordingly (just be sure to give your editor a heads-up).
- Writing something that will embarrass you in five years. It used to be that old issues of college newspapers were stored safely away in basement archives in libraries and student union buildings, rarely to see the light of day after their original publication date. That's no longer the case; your bylines live on online. When I was in charge of my college paper in the earlier days of the web, I had recent alums contact me to ask that we remove something they'd written as a student that they no longer wanted to be part of their digital footprint. So if you think that humor column you wrote might be offensive or that editorial was sloppily researched, think twice about publishing it. You never know who might someday be reading it.
- Going straight to the top. Let's say someone starts a new juggling club or the dining hall introduces more vegan options. You probably don't need to ask the college president for his or her opinion on it. This may seem like common sense, but when I worked on my college paper I regularly received complaints that our reporters were pestering top administrators - including the college president - for comments on relatively trivial new items. Of course, I'm not saying there aren't occasions when it pays to be persistent and question higher-ups - just be selective.
- Misquoting a prof. They may be the same benevolent figures who give you extensions and extra credit, but professors are also serious professionals who are SERIOUS about being misquoted in the press, including the college newspaper (seriously, they hate it). I once had a professor who was misquoted in a movie review and subsequently refused to grant interviews to the paper - even years after the offending reporter and editor had graduated. I've also had professors go on lengthy diatribes in class about being misquoted or misrepresented by the student paper, which tends to get uncomfortable fast when you're in the front row.
- Forgetting to proof. Keep in mind, your editors are likely sleep-deprived students, too. You can't rely on them to catch every mistake, so make sure you're editing your own work diligently before you submit. It never hurts to invest in an AP Stylebook or ask to borrow one from the newsroom.
- Spelling someone's name wrong. This is a cardinal sin in the journalism biz, and also one of the most frequently committed, even by veteran reporters. I once had an editor tell me that if someone says their name is Smith and you don't double check the proper spelling, odds are you just interviewed a Smythe, Smyth or Smitz. On college campuses, however, there really isn't an excuse to screw up spellings; almost all have easily accessible online directories that list the full names of students, staff and faculty. Bookmark this! Facebook is yet another resource. If for some reason your school doesn't have a searchable directory, ask how you can get your hands on a print copy. Trust me; it's going to be indispensable.
- Pitching a story that's already been published. Nothing says "I don't actually read this newspaper" like pitching a story that ran on the front page last week. More forgivable is proposing a story that ran last year, especially if you're a freshman. Nevertheless, it's easy to save yourself the embarrassment by searching keywords in the archives before making your pitch. And on a related note, most schools have perennial stories that are covered again and again, usually without much creatively. So if you're assigned to cover freshman orientation, for instance, learn the lay of the land and try to come up with a way to tell the story that hasn't already been told.
- Overthinking it. I know, I know. What is college for? Your brain is probably on overdrive from a full course load and too much reading on Kant, postmodernism and macroeconomics. But try to strike a different tone in your journalistic writing; remember, this is the student newspaper, not your senior thesis.
When I tweeted that I was working on this blog post, many of my Twitter followers chimed in with their take on the subject. The following is a round-up of their observations on common mistakes made by college journalists. Did we forget any? Share your thoughts in the comments.
@gillianfrew some students forget they're storytellers, getting the facts but forgetting to bring an article alive with details
— Christina Jedra (@ChristinaJedra) March 13, 2013
@gillianfrew One of my former colleagues, after interviewing Colin Powell, spelled his name Colon Powell. That's a good one.
— edward weinman (@edwardweinman1) March 13, 2013
@gillianfrew fact checking is something I see regularly as a shortcoming of student reporters. Can't wait to see your post.
— Mary Deming Barber (@mdbarber) March 13, 2013
— sara rasmussen (@sararasmussn) March 13, 2013
@gillianfrew Giving people the wrong titles--not that that's unique to student reporters! But I remember my profs' complaints about that.
— EvieG (@EvieG) March 13, 2013