J-school, failure, and waiting for the journalism fairy

I’ve mostly watched the Carnival of Journalism’s rebirth from afar, but this month’s prompt was just too tempting to stay on the sidelines this time around. Here’s the prompt:

A failure in your life (personal or professional) that has lessons. It must be your failure and you must  take responsibility. But this will be a safe space to discuss our failings and what we can learn from them.

My fail comes from about eight years ago, when I was a wide-eyed underclassman at Wheaton College in Illinois. I came into school relatively certain that I wanted to be a journalist, having been inspired by the brilliant pieces in the Sports Illustrateds that arrived at my home each week through middle and high school. Wheaton didn’t have a journalism program (or even a full-time journalism professor), but that didn’t bother me. As far as I was concerned, my career path was set: I would go to Wheaton, gradually get involved in the student newspaper, go to a j-school somewhere for a master’s and my “real” journalism education, and emerge, ready for a full-time reporting gig at either Sports Illustrated or The New York Times, or maybe, if I really had to settle, the Washington Post. Easy.

The first step was starting at the student newspaper: I went to their recruiting meeting at the beginning of my freshman year, and timidly told the sports editor I was interested in writing for them. The response was encouraging — they had a real need for sportswriters, and they could put me on pretty much any sport I wanted right away; only football had been claimed.

I wanted to ease into everything, so I specifically asked for the lowest-profile sports they regularly wrote about, and ended up with women’s basketball (and even that was pushing it a bit too far into high-profile territory for my tastes) and tennis. The next year, I added volleyball and replaced tennis with baseball.

So here’s the fail: I was quite possibly the worst sports reporter you or I have ever read. Oh, I was technically proficient: I knew where to put commas and periods and how to string sentences together into a story. But as a journalist, I was terrible. You know how many athletes I talked to in my two years of sports reporting? One. One. And he lived in the dorm room next door to me.

Every week, I would set up an interview in the office of the coach I was covering, find out how their team was doing, what was coming up on the schedule and so on. Every week, I would try to watch a home game — not really because they actually informed my stories, but mostly because I kind of knew that if I didn’t even attend the games of the team I was covering, then I wouldn’t be able to fool myself anymore about how terrible of a job I was doing. And every week, I would start my story with the same exact Mad Lib formula: “The Wheaton [SPORT] team [VERBED] this week, [VERBING] a [CONFERENCE RANK OR WINNING/LOSING STREAK].”

This is not an exaggeration. Every week: Summary of games drawn from boxscores, rote quotes from coaches, more summary, list of games coming up this week. That’s it. For two years. I made the sportswriting robot look like Grantland Rice.

And here’s the weird thing: I knew my stories were terrible, and I wrote them that way anyway. I wasn’t stupid; I had read tons of incredible sportswriting, and I knew that my stories had absolutely nothing in common with them.

So why did I persist in my head-scratching awfulness? Two reasons: Because I was scared, and because I believed in the journalism fairy. The fear part is easy to explain. I was terrified of interviewing people, and I was terrified of having my peers read my writing. I didn’t want to inconvenience or annoy people by asking them awkward questions, and I found the idea of walking up and interrogating someone to be incredibly intimidating. And I didn’t want my friends to see me do poorly at something they knew I was passionate about: I desperately wanted for there to be a way I could learn journalism entirely in private, without ever having the chance to fail in public.

Here’s what I mean by the journalism fairy: I had this idea that the secret knowledge of how to be an awesome journalist would just magically be bestowed on me eventually. All I had to do was try to keep doing a few journalism-ish things for a while, and suddenly the magic dust would come down, the lightbulb would go on and I’d be a brilliant reporter. After all, I knew I could write, and I could think critically. At some point, I figured, those two skills would come together, and abacadabra, I’d be transformed into an amazing journalist.

This, of course, is ludicrous. But it kept me from learning and doing real journalism for two years, and now, as a TA for journalism undergrads, I sometimes suspect that this idea has infected the minds of some of my students. They have dreams of being high-profile journalists someday, but they’re too timid or unmotivated to do any real journalism now, while they’re in school specifically to learn it.

So here’s the moral of my failure, especially for journalism students: There is no secret knowledge of journalism, and it will never be magically bestowed on you. There’s only one way to become a good journalist — going out, doing it, and then going out and doing it some more. There are no shortcuts. The best young journalists I know attacked their journalism educations, wringing every last drop of experience out of their four (or five, or six) years in school. And one of my biggest regrets about my own college experience is that I didn’t do that.

That doesn’t mean you need to get hyper-competitive about your journalism education, nor does it mean there’s no room for failure or for trying new experiences that don’t have anything to do with journalism. Those latter two are what journalism’s all about: doing. Go, take the tough assignment from your student newspaper. Talk to the sources that intimidate you. Put yourself out there for internships and freelance work. Jump in with the new on-campus media startup. Take the semester overseas. Sometimes you’ll fail, and you might even find out that journalism’s not what you want to do after school. But even if that happens, at least you went out and found out yourself, rather than waiting for the journalism fairy to sprinkle Woodward and Bernstein dust on you. Because as I found out, you’re gonna be waiting for that fairy for a loooooong time.

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05. May 2011 by Mark
Categories: education | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 comments

  • Courtney

    Good post, Mark. I can’t say I haven’t thought this very thing at one time or another: “I desperately wanted for there to be a way I could learn journalism entirely in private, without ever having the chance to fail in public.”

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