This year marks 10 years since I worked as a newspaper journalist for the Latrobe Valley Express in Gippsland, Victoria.
I loved being part of the newsroom: the pace, energy, banter, and having the inside scoop on what was going on.
But it was more than that. My time as a journo taught me skills for life and the lessons I learnt still hold me in great stead today.
Here are my top 12:
- How to work to deadlines. As a print journalist on a rural newspaper, I wrote up to five stories a day (including interviews). It taught me to thrive under pressure rather than crumble.
- How to take constructive and critical feedback. Every article I wrote was edited, critiqued and proofread by my editor and colleagues. If it wasn’t up to scratch, I was told to make it better; if it was too long, I had to cut it. Feedback was given multiple times every day and wasn’t a personal attack, but simply an opportunity to improve the story. Our aim was to produce the best articles and paper we could. There was no time for being precious.
- Empathy is everything. To get the most out of interview subjects, I had to put myself in their shoes and acknowledge their feelings (even if I disagreed with them). Today, empathy allows me to have difficult conversations in an assertive way that makes others feel their voice is heard.
- The importance of accuracy. Getting the story and quotes right was crucial; to protect reputation and avoid getting sued. You can’t just make stuff up. I learnt to take exceptional notes, do my research and only use trusted sources.
- How to relate to people from all walks of life. In one day I might interview a homeless person, politician, primary school student, stay-at-home parent, and police sergeant. I had to be able to adapt my language and approach to suit my audience and make them feel comfortable.
- To be thick skinned. Some people didn’t like what I wrote, or the angle I took on a story. Some people simply don’t like journalists at all. I learnt to let it wash over me without taking it to heart – like water off a duck’s back.
- How to manage my emotions and stay calm in difficult situations. I interviewed people experiencing incredible tragedy, was the first journalist on-site after the 2006 bushfire that razed homes in Toongabbie, and interviewed Tony Abbott when he was Health Minister advocating against stem cell research and abortion. In each case I had to ensure I controlled my response and remained professional, regardless of my personal emotions and opinions.
- Not to be intimidated by power or ego. When dealing with a young, female, regional journalist, some senior politicians and people in power tried intimidation and patronising language as a tactic to avoid difficult questions. It didn’t work. I learnt to remain polite and friendly, but strong on my point, even when it was uncomfortable.
- How to build an influential network. A journalist is only as good as their network. To be the first with the news, people need to come to you first. For that to happen, I had to build and nurture strong relationships based on mutual respect and trust. The network I built as a journalist is still the basis of my professional network today.
- To be curious. I asked questions rather than make assumptions; and sought first to understand, then to respond.
- How to write concisely and use plain speak. Anyone can make something complex; the skill is in making something complex easy to understand. Don’t use a big word when a small one will do – aim for clarity above all else. Lead with the most important information first; get to the point, don’t beat around the bush.
- The importance of grammar. It’s the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit. It’s more valuable than you think.
Bonus lesson: How to swear. Ok, so this one isn’t necessarily a positive, but it was in the newsroom that my vocabulary reached a whole new level of ‘expressiveness’.
Cheers to all the journalists. There’s no-one quite like them ????.
Leah Mether is a communications specialist, trainer, speaker and director of Methmac Communications. She helps large corporate clients, government agencies, small businesses and individuals improve and deliver their communications in a way that connects. She also runs workshops to teach people how to communicate more effectively and step up for success.