My college sophomore nephew surprised me twice the other day. “Hey, Uncle Pat,” he said. “I want to feature you in a class assignment.” That was a surprise. And it caused me to wonder exactly what the assignment might be? Drop me from a tree to see if gravity is a real thing?
The second and bigger surprise was that the assignment was for his journalism class. Journalism? Didn’t that subject vanish from curriculums years ago? At the very least, some would say, it’s as relevant these days as taking a course in telegraph receiver repair.
But it turns out that journalism—even in the midst of being pilloried by the latest U.S. president and others—is nonetheless hot as a career choice. Even as traditional birdcage-liner newspapers are getting harder to find, many readers keep turning to them. Plus, their favorite publications (like this one) are also on-line. Then, that version can be printed for the birdcage.
Journalism was a key part of my own college experience. I was the editor of the school newspaper—taking bold editorial stands on hot campus issues—like why pizza had been dropped from the cafeteria menu.
But my nephew’s interest in journalism seems to be steering toward reporting—particularly the broadcast type. In the old days, that used to mean standing in front of the capitol building in Olympia and explaining the finer details of a bill. Nowadays, it means standing outdoors and explaining that it is raining.
My nephew asked me a tough question: “What does it take to be a good reporter?” I pondered that for a second and realized I didn’t have a great answer since I’ve had very little TV reporting experience. But I’ve known lots of good TV reporters—and steered my nephew their way. Plus, I have also known a lousy one—and I think any aspiring broadcast reporter might learn more by studying him.
His name—not his real one out of fairness—is Jonathan. He was a TV reporter for almost a decade before quitting. If you talk to him now, he will admit he should have always considered a different career. In fact, in his initial job interview, he almost didn’t get hired because of his habit of saying, “No news is good news.”
But he had the right look for a TV reporter and soon got a job at a small station in eastern Washington. Things were rough right off the bat. On his first day of field reporting, he struggled to determine which camera he was supposed to look at. This should not have so tough—there was only one.
But nothing will expose a rookie reporter—and an out-of-towner—like mispronouncing local names. On Jonathan’s very first report, he mispronounced ‘Kennewick.’ He called it ‘Chicago.’
His grasp of state history handicapped him as well. Explaining the early days of the state’s first settlers, Jonathan recalled how Lewis and Clark first came to this region over two-hundred years ago. Several viewers noticed when Jonathan referred to the duo as “Jerry Lewis and Dick Clark.”
But knowledge can be gained over time. It’s a reporter’s “instinct for news” that cannot be taught—and Jonathan had none. One time—and this really happened on a live broadcast—he was interviewing a fireman about chimney safety. The fireman was clearly nervous about being on live television and it showed. The guy’s mouth was so dry he could barely speak—and his knees were shaking like a maraca player.
Then, in mid-sentence—during an explanation of the importance of soot removal—the shaky fireman suddenly fainted and fell to the floor. Jonathan calmly turned back to the camera—summarized the importance of soot removal— and then tossed back to the news anchor.
The anchor said, “Hey, Jonathan? One more thing. Is the fireman OK?”
Jonathan replied, “Not sure about that. I’ll check and get back to you.”
That really happened.
Jonathan decided to become a pastry chef shortly afterwards—thanks to his own initiative—and getting fired as a TV reporter.
I have always wondered how Jonathan would have fared as a reporter during one of history’s bigger news stories:
JONATHAN: “And the Hindenburg is attempting now to dock next to the mooring mast…”
(HINDENBURG BURSTS INTO FLAMES)
JONATHAN: “Helium is not flammable—but the designers of the Hindenburg went with hydrogen instead. Interesting choice. Back to you.”