5 tips for young journalists (plus 2 bonus tips everyone told me when I was younger, but I refused to believe until I was older)

Since starting Newsworthy LLC and working with Winning Margins, I’ve been writing more – a lot more, actually. It’s been fantastic. It’s even brought on a few flashbacks to my college-era blog on olsenebright.com. Thankfully for all of us, most of that content has been lost to the slow erosion of the internet, and god help up if my old public access show from high school ever gets digitized.

All those flashbacks had me thinking: what advice would 40-something Olsen give to 20-something Olsen? I don’t have a blog anymore, but I do have “More Content,” so it’s time for a new series.

Welcome to “Unsolicited advice nobody asked for.” Up first: five tips for young journalists (plus two bonus tips everyone told me when I was younger, but I refused to believe until I was older).

Enjoy, and let’s all forget I ever had that public access show.

Be skeptical of everything faster

I don’t mean be skeptical quickly. You don’t need to call B.S. before someone finishes speaking. I mean learn to be skeptical of everything, and learn that lesson quickly. Eventually, all journalists become skeptical of every single thing presented to them. All roads lead to 100% skepticism. How long it takes to get there is up to you. My advice is do it fast.

At some point, you’ll find an old article and accidentally think it was recently published. You’ll fall for a parody account. Someone will try to use you for news coverage. You’ll deal with bad faith actors and maybe even book an interview with a prankster. You’ll have a coworker tell you something was confirmed when it wasn’t. That publicist lied to you about this interview being an “exclusive.” That Twitter account you just sourced is posting scanner traffic.

You will learn these lessons, and eventually you will become skeptical of everything. We all get there. Just get there fast. It’ll save you a lot of grief.

Look up everything

I would be embarrassed if my AP Stylebook search history was made public. I find myself looking up the most basic of style rules, including many of the same ones repeatedly. At this point, I should probably just have the “numerals” entry printed out and posted on my wall.

The alternative is worse.

Having a boneheaded error slip through is way more embarrassing than having to look something up before publishing. It only takes a moment and can have a major impact on the quality of your work. Measure twice, cut once – but, you know, for news.

I would say this goes beyond style. Double check the names, locations and pretty much all proper nouns in your story. If you’re not 100% certain on something, Google it. Look it up. Double check it. In fact, one might say, be skeptical of everything, including yourself.

Let your work speak for itself

As young journalists, there’s a real temptation to embellish your chops. It’s a little bit imposter syndrome. It’s a little bit just being green. Through some miracle, you landed your dream job in journalism and there are all these seasoned vets who can turn out copy with their eyes closed, and you’re a little intimidated.

And that’s when it happens. The hype comes out. The embellishment happens. The signaling starts. You repeatedly mention your big scoop or that lead story. You name drop this and that. You start sentences with, “well, back when I was working with…” You rudely shoot down pitches in the editorial meeting. You take credit for group projects. Your interactions with coworkers become more and more performative.

I’ve seen it a million times with young hires, and the worst part is, the more they try to fit in, the more insecure they seem. They’re trying too hard, and everyone sees it but them.

There’s an easy fix here, one rooted in humility.

Do the work. Stop, breathe, and relax. Just do the work. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. You don’t need to validate your hiring or your role in the newsroom. Do the work and let the work speak for itself. 

Learn how to write

As a hiring news manager, I can teach someone how to navigate a newsroom, learn this system or that system, how to be a professional, how to tweet, pitch and post, how to edit video or manage photos. Those are teachable skills. Basic Premiere can be a few days, iNews a few hours, WordPress in an afternoon, but when it comes to being a great writer, that takes years.

Hiring managers don’t have years.

That’s why you need to put in the work now. Write every day, practice, grow, become a strong writer.

Let me put this a different way: if you’re a great writer, a lot of doors open for you. There are doors and jobs and opportunities you don’t even know about that will fall in your lap if you can write well.

Everyone has a long memory 

It’s hard to post this tip without penning a juicy tell-all of all the things I remember from my 17 years working in news. I have seen brilliant writing and bad behavior, ethical swings and misses, and people standing up for something. I remember retirement parties, big stories and wild nights.

I’ve had managers show up to the newsroom drunk. I remember which coworkers were busted for plagiarism. I once had a very famous anchor call me a homophobic slur. I will never forget the intern who lied to get a red carpet press credential. I remember who’s a big-J journalist and who just wanted to be on TV.

The point is people remember. You’ll be remembered. You’re about to embark on a long career. Be remembered for the right things.

Bonus tips everyone told me when I was younger, but I refused to believe until I was older

I didn’t listen to these, but maybe you will? Hindsight is 20/20, people.

Your whole life doesn’t need to revolve around journalism

Working in news is intoxicating. You have all this access. You get to control what stories are told and which ones are cut. You get to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It feels important, it’s busy and if you let it, it can be your life 24/7.

I was that person, and I routinely had seasoned news vets tell me to calm down. I didn’t want to hear it at the time, but they were right. Lori Preuitt, if you’re reading this, you were right.

There’s a lot of room in your life for other stuff. You don’t need to be on your phone 24/7. Someone else can go into the newsroom and cover that breaking story. Enjoy your time in news, but don’t be afraid to have some boundaries.

Learn how to produce television news

People routinely told me to be a TV producer. I routinely told them no. I was happy working in digital. I was comfortable, the work was exciting, and I enjoyed it. That being said, if I went back and got to do it all over again, I would be a line producer.

There’s job security in TV news, especially for producers, the pay is good and there are tons of professional opportunities.

Plus, we’ve been in a yearslong talent drought when it comes to TV news producers. Ask any news director in the country. They’re all desperate for good producers. Hell, they’re desperate for bad producers.

If you can produce TV news, you can write your own ticket in any broadcast market in the country.