6 Skills Every Journalist Should Possess

New York Times national editor Marc Lacey shares what he looks for in correspondents.

National editor Marc Lacey speaks to undergraduates visiting The New York Times this summer. Image by Yemi Adewunmi.

This piece was originally published on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.

Whether he’s assigning stories, hiring writers, editing articles, or working on a podcast, Marc Lacey’s core focus is uncovering and sharing stories that broaden our concept of the world. And he’s not afraid of breaking new ground. In fact, he encourages it. In his 18 years working at The New York Times, Lacey has worked as a The White House correspondent; an international correspondent in Africa, Latin America, and The Caribbean; a bureau chief; and the newsroom’s weekend editor. Now, as national editor, he oversees Times correspondents across the country and manages the newsroom’s coverage of race in America.

“You’ll rise up at The Times if you’re an innovative thinker who can find better ways to do things we’ve done for decades,” says Lacey.

Want to know what skills and characteristics Lacey looks for when hiring correspondents? “You’ll rise up at The Times if you’re an innovative thinker who can find better ways to do things we’ve done for decades,” he says. Here, Lacey shares six tips for journalistic success.

1. Run up a steep learning curve.

You have to be a quick learner. Journalism means rapidly studying, talking to experts, and trying to absorb enough so that, by noon, you can write an authoritative statement on a topic you’d never heard of at 8AM. Then, do it again tomorrow. I’ve woken up to assignments in countries that I could barely find on a map and reported on their political situation two days later. Try to view your inexperience as an asset — a fresh set of eyes. Commit. Ask the questions others aren’t asking. Soak up all that you can. Report. Rinse. Repeat.

“You’re only one person with one perspective. Hunt for help and guidance from those who have a different vantage point. Your work will benefit.”

2. Embrace diversity.

It’s so important to collaborate with people from assorted backgrounds. We need people who speak different languages and have different histories and understandings in order to accurately cover this diverse world. At The Times, we have a team, comprised of 15 to 20 ethnically and racially diverse employees from all different departments, that meets to discuss ideas and analyze which perspectives are (or aren’t) being considered. It gives us an opportunity to challenge various points of view and, in the end, we walk away with better, more nuanced stories. Remember, you’re only one person with one perspective. Hunt for help and guidance from those who have a different vantage point. Your work will benefit.

3. Adapt to your environment.

Good correspondents are adaptable, independent, and proactive. New York is an amazing city to test reporters on their ability to be both curious and culturally sensitive. I can send a new staffer to any neighborhood and find out how they handle being in a place where they don’t feel comfortable, don’t know the language, or don’t know anyone who lives there. And, depending on whether they turn that experience into a sophisticated observation or a more stereotypical account, I can tell how that person will likely handle a story that’s happening at the border or in a different country. Avoid the typical narrative. Instead, approach each story as if you have a lot to learn. Because — guess what? — you do.

4. Delve deep, then know when it’s time to move on.

We have reporters who drop into a place to report a story in a matter of hours, but we also have men and women on the ground who live in these places for years to really get to know the area and its residents. The first year is all about discovery. By the second and third years, embedded reporters are translating their knowledge into great journalism. In the fourth year, some people are at the top of their game; others start to lose their fascination. As the editor, it’s my job to recognize that shift and know when it’s time to move them to a new place. Try to keep a fresh perspective. Stay hungry and curious. When that fades, check in with yourself: Are you doing your best work? Is it time to move on?

5. Accept criticism.

Journalism is imperfect. The objective is to capture a full picture and be sensitive, but we operate very quickly, so it’s more like a first draft of history. Editorial criticism is simply part of the business. A good correspondent invites criticism. Thanks to social media, we can now get feedback almost instantly, and if there’s a mistake, we get called out. When that happens, the best thing for a journalist to do is address it. At The Times, we correct errors because we believe people will use The Times as a reference for years to come. We don’t want a mistake (or even a typo) to become conventional wisdom simply because we reported it. Accuracy matters. When you screw up, fess up and make it right.

6. Look for stories everywhere.

My wife says there’s an expression that comes over my face sometimes — it drives her crazy. We’ll be at a friend’s house, and she’ll say, “I know you’re thinking of a story.” But I can’t help it. Being able to connect with a place, hear things, and say “that’s it — that’d be a great story” is a skill all good correspondents must have. Never take off your reporting cap, no matter how exasperating that may be to your significant other.


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