The horrors of being a reporter

Horrors of being a reporter pic
Reporter Hannah Onder works long hours to finish her stories. Photo by Hannah Onder

It’s just taking pictures. That’ll be easy.

Whether it’s yearbooks or newspaper, reporters in general don’t just have the “easy” job of taking pictures. Even the people that know there’s actually writing included in the job may not realize the horror stories student reporters deal with all the time.

Before we get into the truly gruesome ones, let’s start with some simple every day ones. All college media reporters are also students. They have the same algebra homework, English essays, and history reports that everyone else has, plus their stories. Now, some people may think that’s just writing another English essay — what’s another hour or so? — which is right to a degree. What that statement’s lacking is the process of getting to the point of where writing is just like another paper.

Before any writing can occur, there must be story ideas, which are just like coming up with an essay topic that has to approved by a teacher or in this case an editor; however, this idea must be relevant and timely to the area you’re reporting for and it must be something you can get at least three live sources for.

While we’re talking about sources, every reporter needs at least three people as sources that they, ideally, decide on the day the story is assigned. It’s not easy to switch sources last minute like some people may do when writing their research papers. This is because sources must be contacted and interviews must be set up to make deadlines. Typically, when writing for The Rambler print newspaper, students have a week to get their stories together, so interviewing needs to happen as soon as possible. Getting those interviews is a whole different level of terror that will be explained later.

Assuming the three interviews are set up and everybody showed up at the time and place that was agreed on, reporters are also in charge of writing their questions. The questions a reporter asks will either make or break a story. Reporters have to get most if not all their information from their sources, so if the questions don’t prompt the needed responses there will be no story. This leads into the three types of people interviewers run into: the one-worders, the answerers, and the talkers. Most people are answerers, so they’ll answer exactly what is being asked and only that. The gems are the talkers that will answer your questions and beyond that, adding in information the reporter may not have thought to ask or may not have known to ask. The worst are the one-worders, who will answer the question in one word without elaborating, which is why it’s necessary for questions to be open-ended.

After the interviews lies my personal horror of typing out the interviews or transcribing them. Now, it may be pointed out that you could write the responses to your questions, but have you ever tried to write down people talking? Even when taking notes people abbreviate, they don’t write the exact words said by their professor, so therefore my preference is to record interviews. That way the words are one hundred percent accurate to what was spoken. Back to the transcribing: It’s not just one interview, either: it’s at least three. For every interview I type out it usually takes one hour per ten minutes of recording. Most of my interviews average out to about ten minutes, so at minimum it usually takes three hours to transcribe everything in order to start the writing process. It gets even more interesting when there’s multiple people talking, or fun background noises like music, traffic, etc.

Finally, you get to the part which can be compared to writing an English paper, though I prefer not to make the comparison, since it is someone’s life story we’re writing about. That of course adds the pressure of doing it right. The next thing is to go back to all that typing you just stared at for the last three hours and pick out your lead, nut graph, direct quotes, and transitions, and write the story. Pray you don’t get writer’s block and can write at least a page on top of the six or more you just typed out.

You may be thinking that’s the final step of being a reporter. It’s not.

You still need to go schedule editing times, and sit for an hour making sure to catch as many errors as possible. Also, you need artwork so you have to take some pictures or create a graphic, which can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour, and edit those. Plus, you need to do layout.

Online layout it isn’t that bad. You just write the headline, put the text and picture in the boxes, caption the picture, and add in all the tags. That will take fifteen minutes, unless you’re getting fancy and adding in extra media. For print layout you better be ready to become one with the chair, because that will take at least an hour, if not five. With print, reporters must decide the exactly how the text, headlines, bylines, art pieces, and captions sit on the page and have to make it fit within certain criteria of sizing and spacing. They also have to go back and make corrections after the page is edited.

This frightening work load may look to be done, but no. The madness continues.

After the interviewing, transcribing, writing, photographing, and designing, there’s promotion. The last thing you want is all those hours of work wasted by having no one read your story. That’s around ten hours per story of your life that you don’t get back. Therefore, reporters need to distribute newspapers around campus and share them around social media, so that’s at least another 30 minutes of posting and walking you need to do.

Now we’re done … for one story. Usually Rambler reporters write at least two stories per week. There are those three- or four-story weeks, too, when things get really lively on campus.

I did promise some truly harrowing stories of being a reporter. Most of those come from getting the interviews. One common scenario is when you plan to meet with somebody at a certain time at a certain location and then they don’t show up. One extreme personal example was when I talked to a person face-to-face an hour before an interview, and then I sat there thirty minutes before I got the communication that the person was no longer on campus and would prefer an alternate time. I then showed up at the alternate time to find the person still not there, and I had to wait another ten minutes before the person arrived. I wasn’t frustrated about changing the time of the interview, but rather the fact it took so long for that person to communicate their issues with me. This person at least communicated with me within 24 hours; I’ve heard stories where a reporter waited for an hour and didn’t hear back from the interviewee for days.

Another common issue is getting in touch with someone. Generally, for The Rambler we use emails to reach out to people about interviews if we don’t see them on a daily basis. I send my emails as soon as I have my sources figured out, because I know not all people check them on a daily basis. This method usually works to where I will get a response and interview within the week; however, that isn’t always the case. My personal favorite email horror story was when I contacted someone and I hadn’t heard from this person for more than 48 hours, so I had the office of marketing and communications also reach out to this person. Another day or so passes, so I eventually find this person’s office and wait 30 minutes for this person to get back from lunch. Then I talk it up since someone really wanted them as a source for their profile, and I get a no. Later that day marketing also tells me they got a no. The frustration is once again a communication thing. If people don’t want to interview they should just tell me up front instead of making me run around thinking they’re not getting my communication.

If you thought those two were bad, this one tops it all. It started out simple enough with me emailing my three sources; however, only one responded in the 24-hour window so I went and emailed two more. Three days pass from the initial batch of emails, and the one person I got into contact with recommended I email again. I then sent a mass email to all possible sources for story, extended my deadline, and ended up in communication with someone, but still had no interviews set up. The next week rolls around and I email my questions out hoping someone will answer them. No one did. It got to the point where I was just walking up to people and asking them for five minutes on the spot and passing around my phone number. It took a week and half to get those sources. I usually can get those same kind of sources within three days. The saddest part was it was a promotional story.

These stories only scratch the surface of horror stories student journalists deal with on a daily basis, and each reporter has their own set.

Now don’t misunderstand, we put up with all this stuff because we are passionate about what we do. We love our work, so we’ll do whatever it takes. Now that you do know some of the challenges student reporters face, please don’t make it overly complicated for them if they reach out to you. They want to tell your story to the best of their ability, but the added hurdles waste time and effort.

Even with all the hardships, the job of a reporter is worth it when you come across the lit-up face of a person finally getting to share their story. It’s just an uplifting feeling to be there listening to their story and knowing you’ll get to help spread it to the masses. It makes all the terrible moments worth it, especially when you see people’s excited faces as you hand them the published copy. It’s why I love my job.


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