Friday, November 18, 2011
being a journalist
Today is my last day as a writer/reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and for right now, I suppose it's my last day as a "real" journalist. In my new job, I won't be able to technically tell people I'm a journalist anymore. Writer? Yes. I have always been, and will always be a writer. That kind of designation does not change with a job description.
But, since it's my last day working for the state-wide newspaper here in Arkansas, I thought I'd make a list of what I've learned here...
1. Ethics are still important
I started this job when I was 22, and now I'm 24. I've been a woman the whole time. ;) It's hard being a young woman in the South and staying ethical as a journalist. I had dinner with police chiefs and with city mayors who felt obligated to pay for me. Small town chamber banquets wanted me to eat their catered food, and as I got to know these people and take part in their community it got harder to resist.
In journalism school, I learned never to accept gifts... but what if they're forced upon you? What if the mayor grabs the bill before you can tell him he can't? What if people will be offended if you don't eat their home-made pie? What if someone mails you a really weird necklace made from a domino (true story...)?
It helped me to use the line, "I can't let you pay for that. It's company policy. You don't want to get me in trouble do you?"
But sometimes that doesn't even work.
I say, it's a judgment call. Be as ethical as you can all the time. But in the South, you do have to play the game a little differently, and I think that's OK.
2. Get out of your comfort zone
Some very uncomfortable things happened to me in this job. I had to say, "Hi, this is Caroline Zilk with the River Valley and Ozark Edition of the Democrat-Gazette," about 15 times a day for two years. That in itself is exhausting.
I had to talk to people who had lost their homes in natural disasters and mayors who hated my guts enough to kick me out of city hall.
Was it tough? Yes. Was it rewarding? Yes.
Push through the awkward feelings and hold back the tears. Get the job done.
3. Make friends
Sources are not on some kind of white pedestal. They can be your friends outside of work, and they will help things run smoothly.
I've written before about how I feel especially at home in Heber Springs. A lot of that is due to Melisa Gardner, the executive director of the chamber of commerce there. I learned a lot from her during my time here: most "importantly," I guess is what was going on in town & who the interesting characters were. More than that though, she is an example of the kind of woman I'd like to be someday. She is a strong, independent woman who runs a great organization and is always kind, and she's a great mom to three very talented sons. She is an encourager, a supporter, and I will miss her dearly along with all of the other people I've connected with throughout my coverage area.
4. Use your skills
To the convergence bunch who might be reading: I took this job to write, and only to write. At a big newspaper that employs photographers to take pictures and a web staff to deal with the online side of things. But, I did get to shoot a little bit, design a little bit and help out with the web a little bit. You can make it what you want. If you have the skills, find a way to use it. A good editor or supervisor will appreciate that you're talented and willing to step outside your box.
5. When in doubt, keep your head down
The top thing I wish Mizzou would have prepared me for that it didn't, necessarily, was the actual work environment at a media outlet. Or maybe it was just me being all inexperience and innocent. I thought doing what I like to do every day would mean that things were perfect. They aren't, and that's a big reason why I'm moving on. I have learned that there are problems in every work place - you just have to strike a balance and learn how to deal with it.
When things are bad though, sometimes the best you can do is keep your head down, try not to be noticed and look for the silver lining.
I'm so lucky to have had this opportunity to truly come home for awhile. I moved to Little Rock as a child not too long after the newspaper wars ended, and the Democrat and the Gazette became one, and I really did (for the most part) love working at my home-town paper and covering the beautiful, amazing and interesting people throughout the River Valley and Ozark area. I'm thankful for all of the great memories and stories I have to take with me.