This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here.
Wilson Liévano is GroundTruth’s new Digital Editor. He started as an intern at CNN en Español and worked as a freelance for The Boston Globe before joining The Wall Street Journal, where he stayed for 12 years in different roles.
I just completed my first week at The GroundTruth Project as Digital Editor and was able to use what I learned at previous jobs to hit the ground running. And what better way to start my tenure at the helm of Navigator than sharing these tips with you? Maybe you are also starting a new gig or are looking to freelance with a new organization and have some doubts on how to talk with your new editor.
I look forward to bringing you more advice, opportunities and insights in the months to come. Let’s get started!
1. Learn the newsroom workflow and organize your day around it.
Every media organization has its own workflow. Sometimes forged out of routine, sometimes trial and error, and sometimes methodically planned. But regardless of how it’s structured, workflow is one of the most important things new employees can learn in their first week.
Mapping the path of a story from conception to publication, including who is responsible for each task, will help you figure out your role in the newsroom. Who are the key people you’ll collaborate with? What are you expected to deliver and in what time frame? That knowledge will save you time and will allow you to more effectively pitch and produce stories. Your editors will appreciate it.
2. Get a feel for your editor’s management style
Understanding your editor is critical to your success in the newsroom: if you crack the key to their goals and expectations, life will instantly get much easier for both of you. Communication is key. Don’t be afraid to ask your editor, ‘How do you like to work?’ If you get a generic answer, push for details: ‘How detailed should pitches be? At what stage do you want to see a draft, and how (e.g., Google Doc, Word)? How do you do you edit? When is the ideal time to schedule a check-in?Your editor’s answers will help you craft your own workflow to reduce friction.
A good part of managing your editor rests on understanding the pressures he/she has to endure and make sure you are doing your part in alleviating that load and not adding to the list of worries. A week might be too little time to get a complete reading of your editor’s management style, but for clues, observe how they work with you and with others. Talk with your coworkers to get a full picture.
3. Journalists and editors are people too
Many young journalists feel they have to prove their worth as soon as they cross the door on their first day or they won’t be taken seriously. The temptation to dive in and start churning out stories is strong and, depending on your beat and your editor, it might even be encouraged. But it is equally important to set aside time to get to know your coworkers and editors and give them a chance to know you.
They already know you are qualified to do the job, otherwise you wouldn’t have been hired, but they are probably more curious about your character, how it will be to work with you, and if you can be trusted. That won’t happen overnight, but being open and willing to engage will dispel any misconceptions they might have about you and could open the door for mentoring or collaboration opportunities down the road.
Use your breaks strategically. Take your coworkers for lunch or coffee, stop by your editor’s desk at the start of the day or on your way out and just chat for a few minutes (but be aware of their deadlines and schedules to avoid interrupting). You’ll be surprised with how much goodwill you’ll get from those interactions.
4. Have a plan, but be ready to roll with the punches
During the hiring process you researched the job, rehearsed your answers and prepared for any contingency. So why stop there? Having a plan for your first week (or month) that sketches out your priorities can be of great help.
Do you know what beat you are going to cover? Have a list of potential sources ready. Is learning the CMS important for your new job? Look for online for tutorials that can get you up to speed before you start.
Of course, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans, so don’t chain yourself to your list. You might arrive to your new job and realize your editor has other plans for you or that there are other, more pressing matters that require your attention. Rework your priorities list and save some things for later. Even if your plan changes completely, all the research and planning you did will help you adapt faster to the job.
5. Fail often, fail fast.
The mantra of Silicon Valley also applies to the first week of a journalist. No matter how much research you’ve done or how prepared you are, you are bound to make mistakes simply because you are being exposed to a new environment. Don’t be afraid of them. Instead, embrace mistakes and learn as much as you can from every misstep. Ask all the dumb questions. Your editors and coworkers will be much more forgiving in your first week than they will be down the road.
Having a mindset open to failing and learning as opposed to pressuring yourself to be perfect from day one will help you ease into the job and will yield benefits long after you’re settled.