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A few weeks ago, I asked student editors from around the country to share advice with their peers: What do they wish they’d known before taking on an editing or leadership position?
A collection of responses is below, with tips on time management, setting boundaries and delegating responsibilities. Some students requested anonymity to speak candidly about their former roles.
Nina Heller, American University
Something I wish I had known when I first became an editor was that it’s really important to set boundaries. While The Eagle is a big part of my life, it isn’t my whole entire life, which I think is very healthy and normal. Sometimes it seems hard to separate the two components of student journalist: the student aspect and the journalist aspect. But just because we are student journalists doesn’t mean we don’t get to just be students sometimes, too, and have all of those normal college experiences. Learning to compartmentalize those experiences has been very helpful to me.
Krissy Waite, Ithaca College
I wish I had known how much less writing you get to do as an editor. I really missed it. Also, I wish I had genuinely grasped how much sexism was still present in the industry.
Natalie Bettendorf, University of Southern California
I wish I had known how important it is to not let work relationships interfere *too* much with the personal ones that I held within the student newsroom. As student journalists, pretty much all of our time is taken up by school and newsroom work. Naturally, you will develop a social life within the group of editors (for your own sanity too!). But remember that in an editing/managing role, sometimes you will need to put your foot down with people you are friends with. Try to navigate that line in a healthy way ± keeping the paper running while keeping personal relationships separate.
Cory Jaynes, Sacramento State University
The biggest thing I wish I knew beforehand: It’s OK to take breaks. You still have schoolwork and probably another job, take time to focus on them and your mental health.
You don’t have to be an editor. I did want to be an editor when I first started, but I stopped enjoying it. I was going through the motions, working an insane number of hours and I hated it, so I quit. But that was very uncommon at my student paper. If you were selected for a coveted editor position almost everyone stayed on until they graduated, so it was uncommon for me to leave early and I was worried how it would affect my career.
If you don’t want to be an editor or don’t like editing and you think that time would be better used focusing on your reporting, there’s no shame in that at all. If you felt like you wanted an editor position but didn’t get one due to whatever reason, it’s not the end of the world or your career. It shouldn’t be an expectation to put in ridiculous amounts of hours to a student paper at low pay because you feel like you have to to be in the industry, and we need to combat that mindset.
Molly Walsh, Columbia College Chicago
I wish I knew that it was OK to mess up because I was still a student. Also wish I took more time to invite professionals in to talk to my colleagues and me. And I wish I would have taken more risks with reporting.
Desiree Erdmann, Santa Barbara City College
Going into the photo editor position, I wish I had known how much work it actually would have been. I had no formal training, just an email with a general description of the position and what my assignments would be outside of it. Granted, it was my adviser’s first time with a fully Zoom-run student newspaper and they weren’t completely sure what to expect.
Looking back at that year, what would I do differently? I would have opened a better line of communication with my adviser instead of relying on them to do so before the semester started to get a better understanding of what was expected of me. I would have reached out to the former editor with questions, any and all. And I would have just not said yes so much. I took too much on that wasn’t necessary.
James Burky, Metropolitan State University of Denver
The biggest thing I wish I had known was how little reporting I’d be doing, and how many meetings, damage control and political games with the journalism department I’d be playing.
Andy Yamashita, University of Washington
The biggest thing I wish I knew before taking a leadership position is exactly how much time it was going to require. Once my term ended, I had so much free time I didn’t know what to do, but during it, it just took all my free time, mostly editing and planning coverage.
I just didn’t have enough time to work one-on-one with my writers like I wanted to. Everything had to be broad instructions just because I couldn’t do one-on-one calls, especially since it was during COVID-19. I didn’t even meet all my writers in person and couldn’t help them get better.
Mary Helene Hall, Mercer University
I had to grapple with the fact that I’d have less time to write news, and in place of that, I’d have to delegate more. It’s hard to love writing and not get to do it so much, but I learned a valuable lesson about the tasks that demand more time.
Haley Robertson, Syracuse University
A lot of student editor roles make it difficult to have a life outside of your newsroom. I missed out on things with non-journalism friends during my year as editor-in-chief — those relationships can be really difficult to manage on top of the absurd time commitment that these leadership positions demand. I hope future editors know that it’s OK to not spend every waking moment of your free time thinking about the newsroom and dwelling on things you can’t control.
The most important thing I learned during my EIC training is that it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” You’re not supposed to know everything. It’s better to reach out for help when navigating tough situations that your coursework didn’t prepare you for, especially in independent student newsrooms with no faculty guidance. You’ll be grateful you did.
Hannah Docter-Loeb, Wesleyan University
One of the hardest things I have found in my editor/leadership role is managing my peers. Student journalism is already weird in that you’re reporting on your peers/people you may interact with frequently, but managing peers and especially friends is also a challenge. I’ve had to learn how to create better boundaries and also try to separate work time and friend time, but I wish I did this earlier on.
One issue I was absolutely not prepared for was that two of my editors slept together and had a messy falling out. The news site we ran was a requirement for graduation, so there wasn’t a chance that either could step down or leave. … When you have a decently-sized program of journalism students, the chances are good that some people will sleep together, which will make it harder for them to work together if it goes sour.
Ryann Richardson, Dixie State University
I wish I would’ve known that professors and deans would look at and treat you differently based on your reporting. And I wish I would’ve known that’s OK!
As internship applications begin anew for next summer, here are some resources from The Lead’s archives:
- More than 25 places to find journalism jobs and internships
- Hiring managers share advice for internship applications
- Quick tips to sharpen your journalism resume
- How to write a cover letter that will land in the ‘yes’ pile
- Polish your online portfolio — or create one from scratch — with these tips
One story worth reading
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong has interviewed up to 40 people for a single pandemic piece in The Atlantic. The common threads in those interviews? Empathy and genuine curiosity.
“Interviewing is not just for getting quotes from people — it’s for actually understanding them. And if you approach it that way, you’ll get better quotes,” Yong told Nieman Storyboard.
Yong sets expectations with sources at the beginning of interviews and comes in with topics to cover, but lets the interview guide the questions. This Q&A is full of interviewing lessons for every journalist.
Opportunities and trainings
- Poynter’s internship database lists paid newsroom internships at publications around the country.
- Register for the fall National College Media Convention, to be held virtually Oct. 14-16.
- Register for the FIRE Regional Conference on student online speech, to be held Oct. 16 in Nashville.
- High school students, enter The New York Times’s “Coming of Age” multimedia contest by Oct. 27.
- College students, enter the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Student Innovation Competition by Oct. 31.
- College students and recent graduates, apply for NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project, a weeklong audio journalism training program (currently held remotely).
- Sign up for a free email course on building membership programs, offered by the Lenfest Institute.
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