By Mike Adams
About halfway through my time interning for The Smithown News/Northport Observer (I like to describe it as a “mom-and-pop media conglomerate”), a young man I was interviewing asked me whether I like doing what I do.
“Well, I’ll put it this way,” I said. “I wouldn’t do anything else this many hours for this little money.”
That might not sound like a glowing endorsement for journalism as a career path—mind you, I was pretty tired that day—but there is a very important kernel of truth hidden within that sardonic statement. I love what I do, and I plan on doing it for a career so long as I don’t have to live under a bridge.
I’ve worked on and off for our little weekly newspaper for about a year, originally coming on months before I’d even filed a transfer application out of Suffolk County Community College. I feel like the little experience I’d obtained prior to coming to Stony Brook gave me a thicker skin than most.
By “thicker skin,” I mean that nobody, no professor anywhere, will ever tell me anything as bad as what my editor once told me after I missed my deadline.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “You could have literally wiped your ass with a piece of paper and handed that in and that would be better than missing deadline.”
If this memoir is meant to give any sort of advice, I’d stress just this: Missing deadline is unacceptable, you can literally wipe your ass with a piece of paper and hand that in and that would be better than missing deadline.
If that’s a little vulgar, well, I’ve learned a newsroom can be a little vulgar. There’s something to be said about the bond people form working under pressure, especially the kind of people who get a twisted thrill out of those 2-in-the-morning writing sessions when the only reason your story is going to print that week is because you happened to have it ready before any sane human being woke up to finalize the layout.
I’ve covered basketball games, I’ve written profiles, I’ve written everything from garbage to gold to glorified press releases. As a pigeon in a hawk’s world, I’m nervous about working myself into a corner so young. Besides that, this is a local paper. We have maybe five regular writers, including our staff writers and our contributors, so we all do what we must.
Local news can get a little hokey, but I think that winds up being a blessing in disguise. I’ve learned to wear formality and professionalism like a loose coat, which is particularly critical in interviews. I start out with a lot of “Mr.’s’” and “Mrs.’s,” but a lot of times I wind up being on a first-name basis with a subject by the end of an interview. I will never doubt the power of showing up to cover an event both on time and well dressed, but I find behaving like a human is crucial to getting any decent work done. It’s sort of like the Uncanny Valley. People get uncomfortable around robots.
I hope I don’t sound cynical here at all. I like to say journalism would be a very humbling profession if I were a more humble person. My job affords me the freedom to learn, to take in experiences and occasionally make a positive impact on the world. More than anything—except the deadline stuff—working with a local paper has taught me that positive change rarely comes in big, sexy packaging. For every story I got to write about a teacher working with former child laborers in India, I probably wrote two or three that went something like “hey, there’s a film festival coming,” or “hey, here’s what eye doctors say about viewing the eclipse.”
Those are less glorious pieces, for sure, but they effect positive change in a very real way. I am a reporter, I report things. As I understand it, the whole point is to provide readers with something they can use. Sometimes that “something” is hope or a good underdog story, but it’s no less meaningful when that “something” is “hey, don’t look directly at the sun during an eclipse.”
So please, future interns, follow the campsite rule: Whenever you can, try to leave the campsite better off than it was when you got there.