As a journalism teacher and blogger I’m probably asked one question more than any other: What’s the best way to get started in journalism?My answer is always the same: Writing for weekly community newspapers.Why? For the following reasons.
Barriers to Entry Are Low: Small community papers are the easiest way to break into the news business because, unlike bigger papers in major metro areas, they typically don’t pay much and aren’t seen as very glamorous. Also, community papers usually have small staffs, so they use a lot of articles from freelancers to fill their pages, which means lots of opportunities for newbies to get their work published.
It’s Great Experience: True, community weeklies may not be glamorous, but they offer beginners a chance to get the kind of reporting and writing experience that will be invaluable when you get to the big leagues.For example, let’s say you want to someday cover Washington politics. The best first step is to cover your local town government. It may seem like a long way from the halls of Congress, but believe me, politics is politics wherever you go, and coveringtown council meetings will tell you a lot about how the political process works.Want to someday cover big-league sports? Start by covering local high school or small college sports in your town. Sure, a high school football game isn’t exactly the Super Bowl, but many of the lessons ofsportswriting are the same.
It’s a Good Way to Build Your Clip Portfolio: In order to get a job in print or online journalism you need a strong clip portfolio, and writing for a community paper is a terrific way to do that. As I said earlier, community papers typically use a lot of articles from freelancers, so if you’re eager to work it’s possible to rack up a lot of clips in a relatively short period of time.
It’s a Good Way to Try Different Things: Big-city papers typically have specialized reporters who only cover specific beats, but as you can imagine that doesn’t work very well at a community paper with small staff. So writers for such papers often get to cover a little bit of everything, from the aforementioned town government and local sports scene to the localcourts, crime and even arts and entertainment coverage.So let’s say you think you’d like to make your mark as a crime reporter. Give it a try at your community paper. Or maybe you’d like to become a film critic or arts writer. Offer to review the latest Hollywood or independent art house releases. Whatever interests you, there’s probably an opportunity to cover it for your community paper.
It’s a Chance to Make Mistakes on a Small Scale: Reporters never want to make mistakes in their stories, but anyone who’s ever worked in journalism has done just that. Maybe you misspelled the mayor’s last name, or miscalculated the amount of the local property tax increase, or referred to a police lieutenant as a sergeant.The point is, if you’re going to make a few mistakes in your copy it’s better to make them at the local community weekly, with its audience of a few thousand, than when you’ve working for a major metro daily where hundreds of thousands of people are perusing your every word.In other words, writing for a community paper is a chance to build the solid working habits that are the hallmarks of any good reporter: An anal-retentive attention to detail, accuracy, objectivity and fairness. Get those habits ingrained in your psyche while working for your weekly community paper and they’ll be with you for life.