16. Non-specialized journalist and experts

As a rule, journalism is general-interest. You’ll have to cover all kind of stories. Running from one topic to another, a journalist risks spouting inaccuracies. It’s an often heard critic, that journalists talk for the sake of talking. But being general-interest doesn’t mean being ignorant or shallow. The best experts are only general-interest journalists that are extremely conscientious. 

Be polyvalent

A journalist has to be ready to tackle any and all topic. He doesn’t choose his field; the news picks it for him. He must be competent both in small and vast spaces. Just like MD’s, journalists have to deal with the smallest topics as well as they’ll do with great ones. Whether you work for a local paper or a famous one, you must be modest and available.

It’s a matter of state of mind

  • Cover the most banal story as if it were news breaking, with the same rigor.
  • Cover the most ordinary news as if it were groundbreaking, with the same precision. 
  • Get ready for a vox pop as if you were preparing an interview : with an interview guide.
  • Treat every report as if was a beautiful story to tell.
  • See anyone you meet as a potential portrait.
  • See every trivial detail as the possibility of a unique report.
  • Anytime something out of the ordinary happens, ask yourself : could there be something to investigate ?
  • Organize local news as meticulously as national news. What happens in my building is more important than what happens in the neighborhood, what happens in my block is more important than what happens in the city, what happens in the city is more important than what happens in the state, etc.

It’s a matter of conditioning your instincts

  • The news is sleepy ? I’m not ! I develop interactivity by asking my readers, whose letters and opinions are a goldmine when I have no stories to cover. 
  • Nothing’s happening ? I’m creative ! I find unexpected angles to cover familiar topics. I only need to be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary and to choose a surprising genre to cover a banal story.
  • The news is boring ? I’m active ! I find strong testimonies to illustrate hackneyed stories. I only need to enrich my address book with the contact info of potential sources to become able to cover any type of topic.
  • The news isn’t inspiring ? I work on my style ! I write a pretty brief, made up of a carefully crafted sentence, thanks to a random wire story. For example : “The Roman court ruled as abusive Caesar’s lay-off of a legionnaire who worked for his HQ, because he had nicked three slices of ham abandoned by a centurion to feed his Gallic dog”. I can even create a new column filled with funny short stories.

Strive for excellence

You gain expertise thanks to your work. There are some stories you can’t properly cover if you don’t have the necessary knowledge to delve deeper into them. You can’t explain a police case if you don’t know how the system works. You can’t analyze the financial status of a firm if you don’t know the difference between profits and losses. You can’t review a work of art if you know nothing about art.

It’s a matter of self-investment

The best papers are the ones whose journalists are figures of authority because they’re considered as relevant, whichever kind of topic they cover, from the most complex (justice, police, sciences, health, culture, religions, military, etc.) and the more ordinary ones (internal affairs, foreign affairs, economics, sports, etc.).

Any journalist can become an expert in any type of column, provided he wants to and his willing to put some work into it. You don’t need to go back to school for that… just work for it.

  • Make it a personal goal to become the best for you column of choice (whether you’ve actually chosen it or not).
  • Ask your elders for advice, and take some time to learn.
  • Read all that’s written on your chosen topic, particularly what other papers print.
  • Learn, just like in school, by using all the necessary tools: codes, rules, laws…
  • Build a personal network of sources to have your questions answered.
  • Be physically present as often as you can, even if it means wasting some time, at the places where professional experts debate (assemblies, congresses, reunions…).
  • Write simply enough that the general public understands you, but with enough precision that experts appreciate it.

The most efficient newsrooms are the ones who organize the collaboration between general-interest journalists and experts.