Surviving Your First Five Years In Journalism

I’ll never forget my first job. I interviewed with The Miami Herald while attending the UNITY: Journalists of Color convention in Seattle, and Managing Editor Rick Hirsch talked to me about my reporterly hopes and dreams. I’m sure I said a bunch of stuff that made him inwardly chuckle, but he gave me a shot. By the Sunday of convention he had offered me a gig as a one year intern at the paper I came to affectionally call Ma Herald.

I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to get away from my parents and prove to everybody that my expensive Medill School of Journalism degree was well worth the cash. I was ready for my Pulitzer and prepared to be the black Lois Lane flying about South Florida.

And then I got down there, and my mom stayed with me for two weeks. And as she left, I sat on my brand new Rooms to Go bed and looked at my purple ROoms to Go couch, and I bawled my eyes out. My mommy was gone. I was in a strange place with a new, silver Altima, a ground-level apartment in a little known Broward County town and I didn’t know how to do my own hair in that humidity. I was a wreck! At least I knew how to string a sentence together. Except I didn’t.

The Miami Herald is where I learned how to report and write. It’s where I learned how to FOIA and cover murders and city hall and county government and level four trauma centers. It’s where I had my first column — The Life of the Party, where I covered rich folk doing rich things on South Beach (and also where I met everyone from the Bee Gees Barry Gibb to the boxer Lennox Lewis to the producer Harvey Keitel) — and also where I wrote about my first lightning strike on the beach in a piece that instantly went viral way back in 1999.

I joined the South Florida chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and I participated in regional and national conventions. I looked to those journalists for insight and help when the going got rough. I joined the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and made tons of friends. They even had given me a college scholarship, so I was very partial to NAHJ.

I mentored kids, helped out with my sorority (Delta Sigma Theta) and I came up with a program in South Florida that eventually became very popular on a national level. It was a session called “How to Survive Your First Five Years In Journalism.” No more than two hours, this session was all about how to make it in a tough profession and how to survive being away from your parents and best friends in an era where Skype didn’t exist and Facebook was only available to the Ivys.

Journalism has had my heart since then, and I’ve figured out how to stay employed despite tumultous times. But those first five years can set the tone. Here then, is what I remember from those early sessions I used to host for college students and recent grads.

  1. Resign yourself to the fact that you will earn very little, live very far from home and probably cry yourself to sleep a few nights a week.
  2. After a few weeks, the “Oh shit what have I done” feeling will die down and you will be comfy — unless you rented a first floor apartment and you are afraid of men breaking open your windows and crawling in. If that’s the case, I recommend a second floor apartment. In fact, I always recommend living in a second floor apartment.
  3. Be prepared to work the terrible shifts. Lobster shift, Saturday and Sunday nights. Wednesday nights. But know that terrible shifts beget amazing stories. You will be the only one at work when a 2,000 pound sunfish floats close to shore to wink at people on Clearwater beach….
  4. If you want to snag the cover story or 1A, get in the habit of reading great writers. I mean it. My favorite story of all time is Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. It’s an Esquire classic. It’s lovely. Read it like, five times and then go back and write your own story.
  5. When you are stuck at a city hall meeting for a town with only 10,000 residents and you are covering zoning changes or paint colors, remember that the skills you are learning right now will get you awards much later. The Boston Globe hired me in part because I wrote a silly little series of stories on a South Florida town that did bizarre things like ban spinning barber poles and purple paint.
  6. Pay attention to all the news, or as much as you can stomach. Reading other newspapers and magazines will inform your own story ideas.
  7. Make non-journalism friends. Try. I know it’s hard. But try anyway.
  8. Don’t sleep with anyone in your newsroom. I know the editor for the sports section has awesome hair and lots of fun shit on his desk and free tickets to everything. But know this: journalists run their damn mouths all the damn time when it comes to work indiscretions. Maybe it’ll work out for you, but eh, probably not. And reporters are OBSERVANT. They see you. So stop it. Or at least be damn sure if you are going to go that route.
  9. Use your AP style guide and your dictionary. Please.
  10. Spell folks names right. Just triple check, ‘K?
  11. At the beginning of the year, ask your boss for your birthday or your one holiday off. Know that people with more seniority will get Christmas, Easter, etc. But if you are smart, you’ll ask for one holiday and in the same email, offer to work all the others. If Christmas is a must for you, then offer to work New Years Day, New Years Eve, King’s birthday and July 4. Your editors will love you. And, you’ll get the best stories that day.
  12. Keep business cards on you. Even at the club. Pass them out. Order more. Tell folk to call you with tips. And when they do? Help them.
  13. Bring donuts or flowers with you when you go to cover the family of a murder victim. Offer condolences. Mean it. If some grieving mom asks you to pray with her? Just bow your head. Yes. Yes. You’re an atheist. OK. Bow your head anyway. Respect the dead even while on deadline.
  14. Call your mom and dad.
  15. Stay hungry for improvement.
  16. Stay humble. No one cares where you went to school. And you really can learn a lot from the obit writer.
  17. Try to attach yourself to big stories by collecting string for the top editor or writer.
  18. Study the art of the interview.
  19. Do what your boss says. I mean, unless they’re asking you to rob someone at gunpoint, you should just listen and learn.
  20. Know when to move up or leave.
  21. Try to develop a speciality. And, learn all you can about FOIA, courts and cops. Those basic reporting skills will carry you no matter whether you cover celebrities, business or school districts. Make sure you get the basics down pat.