Ask the Hippie, Vol. 1, Issue 3

This isn’t really a hippie question per se, but it falls within the Red Fork Hippie’s area of expertise, so it’s as good a candidate for “Ask the Hippie” as any other topic. And I know some other journalists peek in on this blog now and then. I hope they’ll chime in with their thoughts, too.

Q. What does it take to be a journalist?

A. Here are the things you need to be successful in journalism, in no particular order: Curiosity, tolerance, gumption, a strong work ethic, lots of energy, a commitment to accuracy, intuition and good people skills.

Curiosity is the most important trait. If you were the kid who drove your parents crazy by asking “What if?” and “How come?” incessantly from the time you learned to talk until the time you moved out of the house, you will probably do well in journalism.

An open mind also helps. In the past 21 years, I have interviewed cops, criminals, college professors, garbage men, toddlers, centenarians, dog trainers, politicians, artists, gardeners, exterminators, historians, a sewer plant operator, tow-truck drivers, athletes, housewives, fighter pilots, drag queens, preachers … you get the idea. Every one of those people was treated with respect and appreciation, because every one of those people took the time to help me do my job, and every one of them had a story to tell.

Be prepared to work your butt off for a relatively small paycheck, especially the first few years. This is a fast-paced profession that can wear you out if you aren’t prepared for its demands. Know what you’re getting yourself into before you start.

Accuracy will make or break you. I have spent 21 years building my credibility. One stupid mistake could destroy it. I am always conscious of that fact. Readers’ trust is very hard to gain … and very easy to lose. Accuracy is everything.

Sometimes accuracy depends on your ability to recognize when someone is lying. People have all sorts of reasons for lying to reporters. Some are trying to advance an agenda. Some are trying to cover up a mistake. Some will just feed you a line of bull to see if you’ll fall for it. Don’t. A healthy dose of skepticism will go a long way toward protecting you from other people’s malice or stupidity. Trust your intuition and verify anything that raises a red flag.

People skills are extremely valuable. Every source is different, and different personalities require different approaches. You have to be able to read people and adjust your approach to suit the situation and the person you are talking to. A lot of that comes with practice, but if you already have a natural gift for getting your way, it will serve you well in this business.

A lot of editors will say that you need to be a good writer to be a good journalist. That helps, but I’ve turned some pretty lousy writers into pretty good writers with a little coaching. I’ve never managed to turn a lousy reporter into a good reporter. You can learn where to find information, but I can’t teach you curiosity, audacity, or intuition. If you have everything else, but you lack writing skills, find a tutor to work on that. The reporting skills are much more crucial, IMHO.

Finally, be forewarned: Journalism is an addictive profession. Once it gets in your blood, it’s very hard to give it up. I’ve tried a couple of times. It was an exercise in futility. I love this business far too much to live without it.