Here's a guest post from Donnabeth Leffler, a veteran of the TV news biz. Over coffee last week, we got to chatting about journalism education and a blog post was born! Read other guest posts here.

5 things every J-school grad must know

I loved school. I loved every year I can remember all the way from kindergarten through graduate school. J-school was my favorite, of course, thanks to amazing professors, challenging work and my gusto for the subject. Even so, there's much I didn't learn until after I got that diploma:

1. News happens on weekends, nights, and on Thanksgiving.

Even when it doesn’t, frequently you will have to wait in case it does. Because it  just might. And even if it really doesn’t, something new needs to refresh the screen or fill the time or the page.

1a. Going to work those days may not feel good but once you’re there, a certain rhythm and sense of purpose tends to move in and that yucky feeling moves along. Other benefits:

  • You may get a day off during the week when you can take care of all sorts of things like renewing your driver’s license or getting your teeth cleaned.
  • You will bond with others working that day, forming work-related connections that wouldn’t happen on a fully-staffed day. This will serve you well. See item #2. [Here are some tips & cautions for dating a coworker]

2. Journalism is a team sport.

I’m not talking about some cheesy promo for “News Team 28 - Your Friends Along the Coast”. I mean you will always rely on other people to help you do your job. It’s easy to envision if you’re heading toward a broadcast (or even a narrow-casting) career but suppose you picture yourself working alone by  the light of your screen? You will always need other people to help you do your job. Yes, I repeated it. You will need people to take your calls, scan documents, check something on his/her computer, make introductions, read  your work, champion your work, etc. Many of these people will also need you for  something. [Expand your network with these tips for using Linkedin]

Cynics would call this a quid pro quo or one hand washing the other and those descriptions are true at times. Many times it’s just one professional helping another. Another term for this sort of relationship is being human. Think of it as constantly paying it forward into a bank where you keep an account. You really will be glad you did.

2a. A kind and courteous approach usually works best. If deadline stress gets  the best of you, go back- or call back- the next day and apologize.

3. Everything matters to someone.

No matter what you’re sent to cover, it matters. Being sent to cover a school board meeting when your only concept of children is the noise you hear outside too early on Saturday mornings is really the first test of your journalism mettle. Here’s where you have to really listen to figure out where the story is. It’s like landing in a country with no language you understand on any of the signs; you just have to figure it out. And it really, really matters. So do stories on solid waste. [Here's an example of award-winning reporting on a story that stemmed from solid waste reporting by Taylor Sisk]

And the ones that matter most of all? Budgets. Many journalists are highly verbal which tends to mean numbers are not our native tongue. If you’re reading this still in school and you have time, take an intro level business course. Even if you do, be prepared to ask a lot of questions when faced with a budget proposal. See item #2 again.

4. Never stop asking questions.

Peering behind the curtain is your job. To continue the metaphor, you have a front row seat for life but you only get the good seat because you’ve promised to faithfully tell us all about the show. If you go to Syria, if you go to Washington, if you go to Silicon Valley, it doesn’t matter. There are questions there to be asked. We haven’t even thought of some of  them but you need to. This is also a life skill. People should see their doctors as  if they had a J-school degree. People should buy homes and get mortgages as if they had a J-school degree. If you are good at what you do and this embeds itself in you, your natural curiosity will serve you well throughout your life.

5. There’s a story in everything. Otherwise said: Everyone has a story.

Your job is to tell that story. Whether you use a pen (what?), a camera, a keyboard, or, eventually, a chip in your head, your job is to take the images and facts and move them around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until they form a  picture everyone can see. The best among you will do more than put together a clear picture; you will weave a tale. [Get tips on adding more details to your writing]

You have a greater chance than most of absolutely loving your work!

Donnabeth Leffler is a veteran of tv news at the local, national and international level. She has worked in broadcast and in cable. She went into journalism and television specifically because her mother tested her on the evening news each night. She thought the people who knew all that must be the smartest people in the world and she wanted to be one of them.