A few words to a young writer about arts journalism

I was recently interviewed via email by a high school student interested in arts and entertainment journalism. Here are some of the questions and answers:

Q: What different professions have you held in order to get where you are now?
A: I had a journalism internship at the Bellingham Herald in Bellingham, Wash., when I was still a college student majoring in journalism, but I also taught English in Japan, edited a phone book, worked as a copy writer for an advertising agency, and worked as a copy editor at a newspaper before becoming the arts and entertainment editor, all the while I wrote freelance reviews of books, plays and concerts.

Q: What classes did you take, throughout high school and college, to put you in a place to get the job you wanted?
A: In my high school, I was on the honors track, meaning I got to take AP classes (history, chemistry, English, calculus), as well as other advanced-level class, but I also took theater courses throughout high school. In college, I was a journalism major, but also took many courses in political science, philosophy and English. In graduate school, I earned a master’s of fine arts in creative writing, but also studied Japanese language and culture.

Q: What personality traits/skills do you need to succeed throughout your professions process?
A: Curiosity, integrity, thoroughness, a belief in oneself and the ability to ask lots and lots of questions without worrying that you may look like you don’t know anything.

Q: What type of subject do you personally like to review and write about the most?
A: I don’t have a favorite subject, as such, because I like so much — and I feel like I’m always learning something new, whether it is about a classical ballet like “Giselle” and how it has changed over the years, or about a new author on the rise, like Teju Cole. The more I learn the more I realize how much more there is out there to learn.

Q: What is an average day of work for you?
A: I read all the email that I get, and that can be from 150 to 300 per day. I send a lot of email and make a lot of calls to set up interviews and photo shoots, and to get clarification from sources about story ideas — this is all in an effort to figure out if something is actually worthy of coverage by the newspaper and, if so, what kind of coverage it might get. I’d say 80 percent of my time is all about this kind of research, organizing and planning, and 20 percent of my time is reporting, writing and editing other people’s stories.

Q: Does the company that you work for usually decide for you or do you get to choose what you’re going to write about?
A: That’s a good question. I decide what I’m going to write about; however, my decisions aren’t based on what I may find most interesting. Instead, I base my decisions on what I think the readers — the people who pay to read the newspaper — will want to read and know about. For example, even though I have little interest in young entertainers like Zendaya or movies like Twilight, I know a certain segment of the newspaper’s audience is interested in those things, so I will write about them.

Q: Do you wish you had done something differently to get you to another place within your career?
A: That’s also a good question. Sometimes I wish I had stayed in touch better with everyone I ever knew, because you never know where connections can lead you.

Q: What advice would you give a student like me going into journalism and arts and entertainemt?
A: The best advice is to read. Read widely. Read locally. Read what interests you. Read about things you don’t have a clue about. What journalism needs, more than anything, are good story ideas. Look at the world around you, the people they know, and the kinds of things they are interested in doing or the kinds of things they make. Then look at the local media (newspapers, TV, magazines) and ask yourself — do these publications write about the kinds of things that I and the people around me think about and do every day? Maybe, for example, you know people who like to make short animated films using apps on smartphones such as Vine or Instagram. Maybe your local newspaper has never written about it before. Then that would be a great story idea to pursue — local people engaged in making entertaining videos. The thing about journalism is that you just need the kind of curiosity to find interesting stories and then to know which publications would want to published such stories. You could think of it as straddling two separate cultures: the culture of art-makers and the culture of newspaper readers, for example.

I hope these answers help you.

Best of luck to you!

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