Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Editor: Lessons for young journalists

Photo: Indianapolis Monthly

The advice is familiar: Make the most of the breaks that come your way.
But an audience of Indiana college journalists got much more from a magazine editor who detailed the self-doubt, incredibly hard work – and the joy – of learning journalism on the job.
Along with her personal story, Amanda Heckert, editor-in-chief at Indianapolis Monthly, had plenty of advice for young journalists on internships, cover letters and freelancing during a talk Saturday at the Indiana Collegiate Press Association spring convention in Indianapolis.
 Heckert came to the city in 2012 and was 30 when she applied for the job, interviewing with an editorial director who said they would be taking a chance to hire her because she had not run a magazine before.
It wasn’t the first break she earned. Here are some of the highlights of Heckert’s personal story and advice :

Early Interest
She grew up in South Carolina, daughter of a broadcast journalist who shared his passion for the business.
“I didn't know what I wanted to do - I was interested in so many things. But I knew that I wanted to be as excited about my job as he was about his.”
            She loved to write and decided to major in advertising at the University of South Carolina.
            An advertising internship, however, was pivotal – in convincing her that she wanted to do something else.

            First break: Atlanta
            She loved magazines, and sent resumes to editors all over the Southeast.
“Somehow, that love of journalism had crept in.”
            An editor at Atlanta magazine expressed interest and told her to send some clips.
            “I had to Google to see what clips were,” she said. "You're about a thousand steps ahead of where I was at your age.”
             She got the internship - unpaid.
            “I sort of took a leap. I moved to a city I didn't know very much about.”
            “I supported myself working retail at the mall, eating pasta and hotdogs.”

            Deep dives and variety
            She loved it from the start.
           "Journalism lets you take these deep dives into topics that you're interested in. And at a city magazine - one day you could be going through court files and the next day you could be writing about ice cream. I loved the variety.”
            She started as a fact-checker.
            “You're having to re-report stories, essentially, and it helped me think critically about these stories. What kind of questions were the writers asking to get this information? How were they structuring their stories?"

            Lesson 1: Make the most of it
            She pitched stories of her own, looking for every opportunity to write and get clips.
“That's what I tell our interns, too: An internship is what you make of it. We've had some interns who come, they put in their hours and we never hear from them again.
“But then we have some great interns who come in and say, 'OK, I'm going to milk this for all it's worth. I'm going to pitch stories. After it's done I'm going to keep in touch with you.'
“And those interns stay top-of-mind because of that.”

            Freelance basics: Dig in
            Her time at Atlanta ended. She would have stayed and swept floors, she loved it so much. But didn’t have enough experience.
            So she started pitching stories and getting freelance assignments. They were small stories. One was for a Greek festival. Another was a story about laser tag.
            “I remember thinking, I'm going to make this the most kick-ass laser tag story ever written - there's going to be characters and themes and narratives….”
            "It can be tempting sometimes to take those small assignments and just kind of gloss over them, and mail them in.
“You're thinking, this isn't what I want to be covering or what I want to be doing.
            “But I would encourage you to take those seemingly small stories seriously, take some risks and have fun with them, because that can make an impression.”

            Spotted by a publisher
            She made an impression, and Newcomer magazine, one of the places she freelanced for, had a job opening. The publisher contacted her, and Heckert realized she would be his only employee – doing everything.
At age 23, she had a moment of doubt: Take the opportunity or keep working for something better.
            “I think since then I've had many of those moments,” she said.
            “There are going to be these points in your career when you have to make a scary choice and take a leap.
            “But I thought, if this guy is willing to take a chance on me I have to believe in myself enough to give myself that chance, too.”

            Crash course – and a thank you
            She did everything – a crash course in putting out a magazine. She came up with the story ideas, assigned them, edited, fact-checked, proofed, edited photos.
“I handled our finances, paid the bills and cleaned the office,” she said.
            She did that for a year and a half, “long, crazy hours.”
“There were many nights I came home and wanted to cry, I was so tired.”
With all that, she was grateful.
            “I don't know why he gave me that chance, but when I got this job in Indy I wrote him a thank-you note.
“I said, ‘Thank you for taking a chance on a 23-year-old, because if I hadn't had that experience I probably wouldn't be standing her today.’”
            Lesson 2 – Stay in touch
            In the meantime she kept up with the editors of Atlanta magazine – not asking for anything, just giving them updates.
“You can just let them know what you've been doing - 'Hey, here's a story I wrote. Hope you're doing well.'
            They had an editor who was going on maternity leave, and the magazine was looking for a three-month temporary replacement.
            “That was another moment where I had to take a leap.
“I was giving up a full-time job with a salary to have this three-month stint with a big question mark at the end of it.
“And I decided that it was worth it, because I decided I had learned what I could at Newcomer, and it was time to learn a different set of skills.”

Tell them your dream
Determined to make the most of the temporary position, Heckert mastered the job and got to keep it when the person on leave decided not to return.
She told her editor she wanted to learn as much as she could about running the magazine, and got the chance to sit in on planning meetings and watch her edit.
            “Tell your editors where you want to be, what your ambitions are, what your goals are. Because if they're any good, they're going to help you get there. “
            She did the same thing with the magazine’s next editor. The things she learned set her up for the position in Indianapolis.

            Luck isn’t enough
            “I think you could look at my story and see these lucky breaks,” she said.
 There was the Atlanta internship; the break at Newcomer, the editor not returning from maternity leave, the chance at Indianapolis Monthly.
            But lucky breaks aren’t enough.
            “You have to follow them up with a lot of hard work and ambition. And I know that's what you're doing right now: You're putting in the hours upon hours (of work in student media) on top of your classes.”

            Lesson 3: Freelancing can help – if done right
            “I have freelance writers all the time who say, 'I'd like to write for the magazine. If you ever have any stories you need a freelancer for, let me know.'
            “Well yeah, I'm going to have stories. But I don't know you, so I'm going to need you to pitch me those stories. I need you to do a little bit of work.”
            In her three years at Indianapolis Monthly, she’s met with about a hundred people who’ve said they wanted to write for the magazine.
“How many actually follow up and pitch stories, and have actually read the magazine before they pitch those stories, and are persistent after they've been rejected - which is a part of it?
            “Maybe five or six people out of the hundred I've met with.”
            Most seemed discouraged to learn they would have to do more than just ask for an assignment.
            “And that itself is discouraging, to see these people who have potential and don't want to put a little work into it.”

            Finding satisfaction
            She’s heard journalism described as not so much a career, but a lifestyle. It’s hard, even away from the office, not to think about the stories she’s working on.
            And at a magazine, publication time feels like exam week in college – the long hours, endless tasks, endless cups of coffee.
“When we're shipping, that's what it feels like. So if you don't like that feeling, it's hard to have that energy you need to do this job.”
But all the work is worth it when readers tell her how much they liked a particular story, how much the magazine means to them.

Lesson 4: The cover letter counts
            The assistant editor job she filled last fall was educational in a way, because it was the first entry-level person she had hired since coming to Indianapolis.
            She got about 200 applications.
“And of those, the first piece of writing I see is the cover letter.”
            A lot of applicants simply threw the letter together without much apparent thought. Some focused on what the job could do for them, instead of the other way around.
She said 95 percent were in bad shape.
            “Take time with your cover letter. I want you to treat it the same way you would treat a pitch to the magazine.
“I want to hear your voice. I want to get an idea who you are. You're pitching yourself and what you can do for the magazine.”

Lesson 5: Don’t wait to start writing
            Newcomers looking for a break should get started even without a job by publishing to their own websites, Heckert said.
            “Use those websites to do the types of stories that you want to do. Be enterprising even if you don't have a job.”
            Such a site made the difference when she filled the entry-level editor position last fall.
            “I could see not only the clips they had done for publication but also what their writing voice was like.”
            Recently she followed a link on Twitter to an Indianapolis writer's website.
“And she's been writing these essays - not for any reason but she just wanted to.
“They were fantastic. She had voice, she had reporting in there.
“And so I reached out to her and said hey, I think we should talk about getting you in the magazine.”

No comments:

Post a Comment