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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Lessons for all -- even the 'old timers'

By Tom Hallman Jr.

In a profession that often seems gloomy, I offer an optimistic column containing a lesson for all of us, but especially for young reporters.

A while ago I ran into a woman I casually know. She told me her daughter was majoring in journalism and was looking for job leads in anticipation of graduation. A few days later, Hadley Malcolm and I connected on the phone. I checked with a friend at one paper, learned she was leaving the business and passed on the bad news to Malcolm. I didn’t hear from Malcolm for some time and assumed she was yet another casualty.

But last week, when I ran into her mother, I learned Malcolm is working for USA Today. Now 23, she signed up for a journalism class in high school and by her senior year was editor of the school paper.

“When I applied to college,” she said, “I knew I wanted to be a journalist.”

She heard from skeptics who wondered why she’d chosen to take a crack at a profession that everyone said was dying.

“That never turned me off,” she said. “Journalism is just evolving. The need for stories isn’t going to go away.”

She graduated from George Washington University in 2011 and entered a tight and, in some ways, crumbling job market.

“I started networking,” she said. “That’s one piece of advice I’d give. I met a ton of people for coffee my senior year. I picked everyone’s brain. Especially today, everyone’s connected online. Meet everyone you can because you never know when someone is going to be a resource. You might not get hired right then, but you’re building a network. I did what a reporter does. I called people cold and asked them to tell me about themselves.”

Malcolm was also flexible. “I couldn’t get a reporting job out of the gate,” she said. “But I met people doing public relations for local theater in D.C. and I thought I could do that so I did.”

But she never gave up on her dream. She applied to a Gannett program that hires graduates and places them in company properties around the country. Malcolm was hired to work at the corporate office for the community publishing division.

“I was working for the VP,” she said. “I wasn’t a reporter. I was doing research and helping with a big project.”

But she seized the opportunity.

“I was very vocal with my boss that I wanted to report,” Malcolm said. “It’s important to let people know what you want to do. She arranged for me to do some assistant Web producing at USA Today. I was posting AP stories on the Web, but that move got me in the newsroom.”

With every reporter and editor she met, Malcolm made sure they knew that she wanted to be a reporter.

“I applied for every job opening,” she said. “I was persistent and outspoken. I used the same skills as a reporter. Eventually the person doing the hiring told me that I didn’t have to keep applying for jobs; they were going to find a spot for me. It took seven months before they officially hired me. I was willing to wait it out.”

She knows that some people would consider her “lucky.”

“I think it’s about being patient,” she said. “That’s hard. I didn’t like the first position I had, but I stuck it out.”

When I think back to my journalism-school colleagues, decades later only a handful of us are still in the business. The survivors are not those who had the most talent, but the ones who had the most patience, willing to learn by covering small-town city council meetings and doing features on the local Rotary Club.

So many fellow graduates of mine got jobs at a weekly or small paper, but they quit after a couple of years because they weren’t advancing quickly enough. But those are the years when you learn the craft and techniques that eventually serve you well.

Get a small-town police officer to talk with you at a crime scene and you’ll learn more about interviewing techniques than you ever did in a classroom. Making the daily rounds at a small-town city hall will teach you how to be observant and learn how to read people.

Malcolm and people like her are the future of this business. She works in a newsroom where many of the journalists are the same age as her parents. Since I’m that age, I asked her what advice she’d give us “old timers.”

“It’s impossible to make a blanket statement, but I’d say that older people, generally, are not as willing to learn new ways of doing things. They are more set in their ways of how things worked, or used to work. They don’t get the new technology, and they don’t want to.

“Younger people are used to change,” she said.”We are familiar with technology. It’s not foreign, and it is becoming more important for journalists. Journalists have to become comfortable with video, online and social media. It’s not necessary to be a one-man band, edit videos and write stories, but you need the skills to be comfortable with all the mediums your stories could be portrayed in.”

At USA Today, Malcolm covers personal finance, retail, a little bit of consumer banking and what she describes as “young money.”

“I love it,” she said.

May we all be so blessed.

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