What I learned about myself, journalism at Newsday

By Nicole Indelicato

Nicole IndelicatoToday is Thursday, August 13, 2009 and the last day of my internship. I can honestly say that I have grown tremendously as a reporter and as a person in the past 24 days.

Allow me to first talk about what I’ve learned:

I’ve learned not to be afraid to write obituaries.

Before interning at Newsday, just about everything about obituaries frightened me. I was uncomfortable with talking about death. I couldn’t possibly imagine talking to someone who had just lost a loved one (What if I didn’t say the right things? What if I blanked out and couldn’t think of anything to say at all? What if the person I was talking to started crying? How would I handle that?). I was also deeply concerned that I wouldn’t properly illustrate the kind of person the deceased was and I’d disappoint the family and/or leave a wrong lasting impression on the minds of my readers.

I can remember how jittery I was during the first obituary I ever wrote. I had to call the son of a woman who died and I must’ve picked up the phone, dialed three or four digits, and hung-up dozens of times. I was afraid of the unknown.

But after writing more than a few obituaries during my internship, I’m no longer afraid. I’ve learned that (most of the time) the family members and friends I had to call really wanted to talk. It’s almost as if it was a form of therapy for some of them. Many of the family members I called seemed honored that an outside person was taking an interest in their loved one’s life. I learned that as long as I acted myself and conveyed compassion, the people were more likely to open up and feel comfortable talking.

I’ve learned how to structure my questions so I don’t just get a “yes” or “no” response.

At the beginning of my internship, I’d get shy and/or nervous about interviewing and I’d ask brief, nonspecific questions. A lot of times, people would answer me with a simple “yes” or “no.” It took me a few interviews to realize why my sources weren’t talking: My questions were weak and indirect.

Once I realized this, I did more research before I conducted interviews. I read about the topics I was covering inside and out (even if I thought I knew enough information already). I also read about how other news publications covered similar topics and what readers’ comments were on the discussion threads under certain articles. This gave me more background and details. With this, I was able to form more interesting, thought provoking questions, which inspired lengthier and more detailed responses from those I interviewed.

I’ve learned more about teamwork and communication.

I’ve learned to keep my eyes and ears open at all times whether I’m in the newsroom or out on the street. Over the course of the internship I’ve learned that all reporters are equal and can help one another.

Once I was doing a story on “Cash for Clunkers.” My assignment was to talk to Long Islanders who were participating in the program. However, I also decided to talk to store owners and “Cash for Clunkers specialists” for my own understanding of the government run program. Later on, I found out that I did not need information or quotes from the car salesmen because my editor wanted a “mug and quote” piece involving just the participants in the “Cash for Clunkers” program.

About an hour later, I overheard another reporter making phone calls to different car dealerships asking for specific information on the “Cash for Clunkers” program. Much of the information he was asking about, I had already collected throughout the day. I walked over to his cubicle and told him I might be able to help. He was so thrilled. I sent him all my notes and he said they helped him piece together his story. He even gave me a credit at the end of his story, which was nice. But I honestly didn’t help him for the notoriety. I helped because I genuinely wanted to help.

Other times, I’ve done stories where I needed specific contacts and other reporters helped me by digging up email addresses and phone numbers for contacts they thought might be able to give insight.

Also, it’s really important to communicate with all the departments. For instance, once I was writing an obituary and the family had sent a photo of the deceased to the photo department’s email address. I had automatically assumed that the photo department received the photo, and since I was extremely set on finishing my obituary before deadline, I hadn’t bothered to make sure photo received the picture.

About an hour before deadline, one of the men from photo came to my desk and asked if someone was sending over a picture to accompany the obituary I was writing. They hadn’t received the jpeg from the family. Frantically, I called back the family with just an hour before deadline to ask them to resend the picture. Luckily I got right through and the family was near a computer so everything worked out. But, had the family stepped out for the day, I would have gotten into trouble. Communicating with all departments involved in getting your story into print is crucial. Even a brief 5-word email may save you a lot of trouble.

I’ve learned that every reporter has his or her own style and voice, which encouraged me to find my own, and experiment with different structures.

Some reporters write with a quirkier flair weaving in rhetorical questions and subtle pop culture references, others are more cut and dried. But all reporters have one thing in common: They all remain objective and fair (most while keeping their readers interested).

Reading the stories written by reporters I knew and worked with inspired me to experiment a little with my own voice. In one of the obituaries I wrote, I strayed from the traditional format and opened the piece with a more anecdotal structure. I was very pleased with the heartwarming and inviting feel it gave my story. I felt like the nontraditional beginning would make readers more likely to stick to reading it past the first paragraph.

I’ve learned how to cut, tighten and budget my stories.

300 words? Really, editor?

Yes, 300-400 words seemed to be the going rate in and around the newsroom. Usually, I’d write my story as tightly as I thought possible without checking the word count. Then, after I was finished, I’d notice that my story was well over the word limit and I’d have to trim it. I would then trim whatever I thought was least important and translate longer, flowery sentences into shorter, direct ones. Many times after all the cutting I thought humanly possible, I was still way over the word limit. I would then let the editors take a look and use their discretion. Many times the editors would still leave the edited versions of my stories 50 or so words over the limit and let the copy desk cut the rest. Occasionally I’d be granted a few extra words if the piece was an obituary.

I’ve learned how to navigate Long Island, and how to drive in general.

Before this internship, I had never done so much driving in my life! I barely even drove on expressways. So when I decided to take this internship, I had a lot of lingering thoughts in my mind. Mostly, I was afraid of getting lost and missing deadlines because of it.

Honestly, the GPS was a lifesaver for me and the 4-5 Hagstrom maps one of the editors provided me with helped too.

I learned a lot about Long Island and its different roads and I became more comfortable with driving in general.

I’ve learned that the “right” thing to do isn’t always the best thing to do.

I was once asked to cover an accident that had happened on the Long Island Expressway. The members of the accident had been taken to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital and I was asked to go in the emergency room and ask people of Spanish decent if they were related to anyone who was involved in the accident. I did not know anyone’s name or what they looked like. All I knew was where the accident happened and that there were five Spanish women in a van.

Upon going into the emergency room, I was overwhelmed with the amount of people and didn’t see that many of Spanish decent. I tried asking one person but she didn’t speak English and another one didn’t know about the accident. I decided to seek help from the hospital personnel, which, I thought was an appropriate next step. I later learned it was a mistake.

The hospital personnel told me that being there was a violation of HIPAA and that they were going to have to ask me to leave. They shuffled me away without giving me any valuable information. They just shoved their business cards in my face and told me to call them later to see if they heard anything.

I later talked to my editor who told me this was wrong and that generally, there are ways around this. He told me I could have kept trying to talk to just the people in the emergency room without seeking higher ups or I could have talked to the ambulance drivers.

I guess that’s why this internship is a learning experience. I felt so uncomfortable and out of place being there. I had no idea how to act or how to be inconspicuous. Now, after having experienced this and learned from it, if I ever have to cover something in the hospital again, I will know how to be subtle and get what I need. Other than the challenges I faced already mentioned within the blurbs about what I learned, there were a few more challenges:

Overcoming shyness:

Every now and then I’d get shy before an interview and I’d find it difficult to muster up the courage to talk about whatever topic was at hand. During the course of my internship, I found that I felt most “shy” before interviews when I didn’t have enough time to learn about the topic I was covering (i.e. like when I wrote a story about sewers coming to Wyandanch, I barely knew how sewers worked). This is a common problem with daily news reporting. Everyday, it’s something different and you’re just going to get thrown into stories dealing with things you may have never heard about in your entire existence.

The Solution? Research.

Something I started doing differently during the course of my internship was taking an extra five minutes to “speed research” whatever the topic was. I’d do anything in my power to help me. I’d Google, skim articles, check old clips, use an online dictionary to look up terms about the topic I didn’t understand, talk to other reporters, talk to my editor, etc. And for those five whole minutes, I wouldn’t let anything distract me (nope, not even a text message). I would just be completely engrossed in research. On my way driving to the story, I’d sometimes read over some things at red lights just to reiterate. I found that doing this helped me feel so much more prepared and confident before conducting interviews.

Listening, thinking and writing fast:

Another challenge I found was taking notes fast enough. Some people talk so fast! Face it, sometimes listening, writing and maintaining perfect accuracy can be stressful – especially at places like press conferences and debates. It’s natural to be doubtful (did he really say that? Or maybe it was this?) but there is no excuse for NOT double checking.

The Solution? A Tape Recorder.

Something I did differently over the course of my internship was invest in a tape recorder and use it for those situations I did not think I could physically keep up with using just a small notepad and pen. My tape recorder especially came in handy during press conferences and debates because I was able to have a digital record of everything discussed. So when I did not understand something, I could replay the explanations over and over again in the car on the way back to the office to write my story. However, using a tape recorder does NOT excuse you from taking notes. With technology, you NEVER know what could happen, so it’s important not to rely on it wholeheartedly.

– Always LISTEN. Do not turn the tape recorder on and go on autopilot.

– Always write down quotes you feel are significant and write down the time your tape recorder says so it’s easier to find later if you need to check anything.

What I would tell future interns:

Don’t just sit there and wait for your advisors to come to you, reach out to them!

The newsroom is a busy, overwhelming place. Many times my advisors wouldn’t even realize when I came and left the newsroom because they’d be so focused on their computer screens. I’d always have to make it my business to go up to whichever editor I had been working with for the day and say: “I’ve filed my story, is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?” The same went for when I came in for the day: “Good morning, what’s going on today? What can I do for you?”

I would say, always make yourself helpful and available. Always ask what you can do to help. Your goal is to network for future job opportunities. You want to do as much as possible to stick out in editor’s (and other reporter’s) minds. You have to be hungry for news in order to stand out and get the best stories.

Pitch your own story ideas.

At Newsday, I worked on many daily stories, but sometimes there were days when there was nothing going on and everything that was newsworthy was already being covered by other reporters. These were the days where I would work on my longer pieces (all ideas approved by my editor). You’d be surprised how much of the story you could chip away at in a single afternoon.

Make connections, keep contact information, notes, hold on to business cards

I cannot stress how important this is! You’re going to meet so many people inside and out of the office. Always take a business card or get people’s contact information. There are so many ways of keeping in touch nowadays; you could even try asking for people’s facebook accounts! I’d especially advise getting people’s contact information who work in the journalism field or hold prestigious positions at places like the police department, hospital, or fire department. You never know when you might need to contact these people again for a story. Even if you don’t quote them, it’s always good to get an expert’s opinion, or have an expert point you in a certain direction. Also, be sure to save your notes and notebooks. You never know when you might need to show proof that a source said something. You may also need information from past stories for future stories.

Ask for recommendations

You’ve put all this time into doing an internship, do NOT forget get a recommendation. This is a way of having a trusted witness’s written account of your capabilities and assets. The trusted witness can be anyone from a supervisor to an editor, it just has to be someone who has observed your work and (will preferably) say accurate (and hopefully nice) things about you.