We Heard These Cheap Phrases When We Started Being a Journalist — Thank God We Listened to Them

Advice given to Anna Aridzanjan — photo made with Pablo for Buffer.

What was the one advice you got that brought you through your journalists’ life? We asked our community of digital journalists and a lot of them started their post with the words “sounds like a cheap phrase, but…”.

… but maybe there is no such thing as a cheap phrase. When you read through all those awesome advices below you get the impression that we all should follow more often what more experienced people tell us. They’ve been there, done that.

So here is a bunch of free advice for everyone of you who wants to start in journalism (and for everyone who already works in it, because we never can get enough advice). By chance there came out four categories:

  1. general advice
  2. skills journalists should have
  3. how to work together and
  4. ethics.

Enjoy!


This article is part of the weekly challenge in our Slack Community “Digital Journalism Rocks”. We started a Slack team for all those who love digital journalism and love to share their knowledge. Interested in joining us? It’s free. And it rocks. digital-journalism.rocks. Follow the conversation on Twitter: #djrocks.


GENERAL ADVICE — WHAT YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE IN MIND

Be humble. You’re a journalist, not a god.

given to Anna Aridzanjan

“Be humble: You’re a journalist, not a god. But also be confident with your work.” This sums it up perfectly, I guess.

You don’t do breaks? But when do you think things through?

given to Katharina Krüger

Thanks, Mr K.

Never be afraid to ask questions.

given to Jonas Jansen

Sounds like a cheap phrase. I personally think that there ARE stupid questions, and you have to be prepared — but don’t be afraid to be a pain in the ass. Mostly it’s worth it. And people will still talk to you afterwards — when they know that you take them seriously.


SKILLS JOURNALISTS SHOULD HAVE

Journalists should write down their name repeatedly before they start an article.

given to Andreas Weck

A teacher once said to me that journalists should write down their name repeatedly before they start an article. That’s why they can stroke their ego and after that they can focus on the essentials — the information, the service. That remained in my memory.

No sentence should be longer than three lines.

given to Barbara Kleineidam

A quite seems-to-be-cheap advice from one of my first bosses when I was an intern at a local newspaper — but I still follow this one and give it to any of my interns to think about it: No sentence should be longer than three lines. No matter what font or font size. If it’s longer than three lines, it must be really worth it or you will lose the reader’s attention. But of course column width is important on this one.

Always be sceptical.

given to Marc Biskup

Mine is a basic advice as well: Always be sceptical.​ When I started working for a local cultural print magazine I had a lot to do with musicians, artists, organisers and so on. But we also did pieces on cultural politics and sports. The people we talked to told there stories — obviously — in the best possible way. But often the stories were not that positive.
My boss kept telling me to always be sceptical. ‘Even in interviews with local artists. Always ask critical questions, try to find the interesting bit in the story.’
Since then, every time I do interviews, talk to people for an article etc. I remembered his words. I think I did some really good interviews and texts because of him and his advice(s). And I think I could feel how the artists on the other side of the microphone were comfortable. Especially the more famous ones who hear the same questions over and over again.
Today, I do not think of his words so much any more. Maybe they are already burnt into my brain.

It’s not about the wow effect. You always need a great story.

given to Susanne Dickel

When I started doing 360° video, Matthias Taugwalder (who did the Mammut project climbing up the Eiger North Face) gave a speech and one of the things I kept in mind was: It’s not about the wow effect. You always need a great story. Sounds pretty basic but — at least concerning VR — it’s not always followed…

Most of the time, journalists get paid for leaving things out!

given to Marc Krueger

Original: “Journalisten werden in erster Linie fürs Weglassen bezahlt.” #StillTrue

You’ll never get rich with journalism.

given to Carolin Neumann

Wow, good question. I’m afraid the first advice I received from a journalist was not that idealistic. The first thing I was told about journalism was from the editor in chief of our local newspaper who came to visit our class room when I was maybe 12 or 13. (Shortly after, he would become my boss for my first internship and then student job.) I remember him saying one thing right off the bat: You’ll never get rich with journalism.
I’m sure he meant it somewhat encouraging, but it stuck with me in the worst way: Up until not too long ago I thought he was right. I mean, I know that getting rich is not easy and isn’t something I wanna strive for anyway. But what I heard when he said it was: You’ll never earn particularly much money. And that’s something that was repeated to me what feels like hundreds of times while studying and working toward becoming a journalist: You’re not in it for the money. But honestly: I’m not in it for working non stop for a meager salary either.
In the last few years, I have developed a sense of entrepreneurship. Of what it means to be a freelance journalist and what it could mean. I am getting more and more weary of this old dogma of journalism being non profit as if money was the devil. (Not just because nowadays my friends and colleagues in other fields get 1.500 euros for a day…) Sometimes it makes me question my field, but I’m not ready to hang up the hat either, so instead I try to find new ways to earn money. To stay true to my journalistic core, but also think more like an entrepreneur.
So: Yes, I took the „advice“ that was repeatedly given me — and I’m working hard to get rid of it!

Be curious about everything!

given to Heiko von Ditfurth

It’s this “the story lies on the street” thing, which every teacher talks about — but it’s true. It’s very helpful, if you’re open for new things an interested about the new. AND: Have a pen with you: Jepp, I’m writing “analog”, because it’s better for me. And I need to write it down directly when it happens.

You don’t have to run around all the time searching here and there for the perfect picture.

given to Nils Lindenstrauss

Advice for photographers. Hold on for a while. Dive into the scenery. Let things happen around you. Keep eyes and ears open at the right moment. Then shoot.

You need to get out there and talk to the people.

given to Karolina Warkentin

You won’t find a good story sitting in your office. Especially when you’re young and you just started it can be quite hard to talk to politicians or CEOs. But you have to be self-confident right from the beginning to be taken seriously.

Stand out! Be quick and use your phone, everyone uses e-mail!

given to Judith Schuldreich

This is still one of the best advice I’ve gotten since I was an intern. Since then, my phone book has become increasingly thick with the phone numbers of spokespeople and contacts.


HOW TO BETTER WORK TOGETHER

For a good story, you need to have a good team.

given to Barbara Kleineidam

A good team consists of team green and team red for thesis and antithesis, assumption, research and fact checking. If you feel like your team members are all green, go for red. If they are all red, go for green.

Journalists never praise. Journalists never give proper feedback. Embrace feedback.

given to Jan Eggers

Talk with your cameraoperator!

given to Heiko von Ditfurth

Because some years ago, during my training as a media designer for video and audio, I often heard about failed communication between the journalist and the guy with the camera (me). Now as a journalist I try to say what I want and need — but as a alone-working VJ I had to talk with myself.

The best boss I ever worked for never stopped being a reporter, never stopped asking questions.

given to Kari Cobham

This falls more under best advice I’ve ever received on being an editor/newsroom manager: “The best boss I ever worked for never stopped being a reporter, never stopped asking questions.” — Butch Ward, senior faculty at Poynter.
What does my team need to do their jobs and as people? Ask them. How can I adjust my approach to leadership so the people I work with get better? Ask them. When you start thinking that the end goal of managing people is to make them better leaders, it shifts your approach and perspective.

Always have respect for what older generations of journalists have seen and what they have achieved.

given to Jonas Jansen

Even if they don’t understand this whole internetthingy they maybe were the ones standing on that balcony with Genscher. We can both learn so much talking to each other. (Best book for learning in German [forget all this Deutsch für Profis stuff] — “Hanns Joachim Friedrichs Journalistenleben”)


AND DON’T FORGET THE ETHICS

Do no harm.

given to Kari Cobham

  1. Everyone has a story.
  2. Do no harm. Which was really helpful when covering tragedy. It helped me come from a place of compassion.
  3. Don’t feel guilty about covering natural disasters and not always being able to stay and help. By doing your job, you’re using the power of the media to spread the word about what happened and that will inspire others to help.
    Oh, and keep in your trunk a change of clothes, comfortable shoes, extra reporters notebooks and pens, maps, water, batteries, and a first aid kit!

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