Students learning to cover in-depth stories need to be prepared for failure.
Sometimes the ideas don’t pan out. And perhaps failure is too harsh a word. Thomas Edison once said he didn’t fail, he just found thousands of things that didn’t work. And sometimes a story isn’t there or isn’t “gettable.” So you move on.
That is just one of the following lessons for aspiring college journalists who want to get into enterprise and investigative reporting.
You will fail.
Tomorrow I have to tell a student that her story is probably not going to happen. Which disappoints me, because it was my idea. I even dove in and tried to find some information for her. It just isn’t there. She’s been at it good for a while and to start over with a new project is going to be frustrating.
But she didn’t really fail (as Edison pointed out). She got some practice in data mining and story planning and other skills that will make the ones that work out easier. In pursuing a stillborn story, she exercised and developed muscles she didn’t know she had.
That isn’t failure. That’s learning.
These are your clips
Are you going to submit to a hiring editor a three-part series on campus finances or a story on a sorority fundraiser?
Both are legitimate stories, but one shows reporting and interviewing chops that aren’t available in the other. And before I elaborate, let me say that student reporters should do both. And their editors and advisers should push them to do both types of stories.
But these enterprise stories show a college journalist’s “long game” and “upside.” And they will get attention and get awards.
That being said, always include one sorority fundraiser story in your submitted clips. It shows you do the mundane, too. And that’s what you will likely be doing for that hiring editor.
Don’t show your cards (even in the newsroom)
Develop your own enterprise story ideas and do them on your own time. Let your section editor know what you are looking at, but don’t oversell it. And don’t give a timetable. These stories take time. Editors don’t like to take time.
“Starship captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.”
Montgomery Scott, Star Trek
Pitch it as a budget item only when it is nearly ready to go.
Right is better than right now
If it is sensitive or controversial or involves an investigation, make sure your reporting is rock solid and unimpeachable. You can survive a misspelled name or incorrect title of an official in little stories. But in a big story that puts faculty or administrators on a hot seat, any error undermines the credibility of the piece. And brings into question everything that follows.
And with such a story don’t go diving into an interview with the biggest fish first. Work from the outside in. Gather information so you can ask the right questions. In Advanced Media Reporting at Missouri Western State University, I don’t LET my students do an interview until they have done their background research first. And that takes about a week.
“If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure. You’ve put the investigation back months.”
Hal Holbrook as Deepthroat in All the President’s Men
Size only matters sometimes
I don’t care how long an enterprise story is. It is only too long if the story could have been told more economically.
And if I have questions after reading one of these pieces, then it is too short. If an editor tells you they don’t have the space, argue your point if it is a strong enough story. And find a way to perhaps run part in print and the complete story online. Find a way.
When I was the newspaper adviser at Missouri Southern State University, two of my students did a story on two football players who were graduating with eligibility remaining. They wanted to go to graduate school at other institutions within the same conference and use their football skills to help pay the way. The university said no.
But the story became more than two disgruntled athletes. Through exhaustive sourcing, these reporters painted a picture of misplaced priorities and questionable treatment of student-athletes within the football program. They came to me nervously — one of them was editor-in-chief, so it was his call — and said, “Don’t cut it to ribbons. It has to be this long to tell the story. People will read it.”
I read it. I turned around to the newsroom and said, “I just read the Missouri College Media Association first-place entry in sportswriting. Don’t cut a thing.” They didn’t cut a thing. And my prediction was on the money.