4 Things I Learned In My First Year of Journalism School

I recently wrapped up my first year of journalism school. It went by so quickly, and although it was challenging I had a great year. In some other blog posts where  I’ve mentioned my journalism experiences, some commenters have been curious about the program. And, seeing as I’ve interacted with some bloggers who are also either aspiring or current journalism students, I decided to write a post about four of the many things I have learned this year. If you’re curious about anything else, feel free to ask in the comments!

I took these photos in the morning of Nov. 9, just before I went out to interview people for my article about the election results. 

1. As a journalist, you have the opportunity to witness history.

I didn’t have any journalism exams this year; instead, we had “Story Days”; four or five days throughout the semester where we had to conduct interviews, take photos, record audio… to file by 5:30 p.m. the same day. One story day in first semester fell on Nov. 9, the day after the U.S. election. I was planning to write about Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president; but I ended up getting people’s reactions to Donald Trump winning the election.

Even though I wasn’t able to add my personal opinion in my article (I saved that for a blog post that I wrote a few days later) it was still an incredible feeling to be writing the same story that other journalists all over the world were writing. Witnessing Trump’s historical victory through writing an article about it was a really cool moment in my first year of studying journalism.

I took tons of pictures of the CN Tower this year, but this is one of my favourite shots. 

2. Get photo composition right in the moment.

I learned pretty early on this year that heavy photo editing is frowned upon in journalism because it means altering the reality of an image. Not relying on editing or filters after the fact means it’s important to pay attention to compositional elements when taking the photo. I took most of my photos horizontally, and tried to remember elements like rule of thirds, lines, and framing. Thinking of these things when taking photos — and taking multiple shots instead of just one — helps you take good photos, without needing to edit them afterwards.

OK, this photo is vertical (and slightly edited). But, hey, artistic rules are meant to be broken… right?

3. Forget “Less is more” when it comes to gathering material.

The adage “Less is more” may be true for word counts due to readers’ increasingly shortening attention spans, but it doesn’t ring true for the process that comes before writing. My journalism professors gave us guidelines on how many voices to include in our stories; often we’d need at least four.

However, this didn’t just mean going out, interviewing four people, and calling it a day. Four voices means four good voices who have interesting stories to tell. This means getting more interviews than required so that you can narrow it down to the best ones. As one professor said in our last lecture, you know you’ve done your job well when you have good quotes on the cutting board.

The same thing can be said of research, and even emailing sources; I remember one story day where I was looking for an expert in war journalism. I reached out to several war journalists, but ended up only hearing back from one. If I had only contacted one person, I probably wouldn’t have had a quote to include in my article.

Toronto has no shortage of cool buildings to photograph!

4. You can do so many cool things with a journalism degree — and you don’t have to wait to graduate to get started.

When I reflect back on this year, I wrote a lot of things that I’m really proud of. For one of my last story days I pitched a story about press freedom on campus since there had been some incidents where student journalists were denied entry to on-campus events. This was a story that was important to me, and it ended up being my favourite article that I wrote this year. Having that opportunity to choose the story I wanted to cover has made me even more excited to branch out into other types of news writing and to continue pitching my original ideas.

And that was just for an in-class assignment — outside of class, there are so many interesting opportunities, from writing for on-campus publications to working on your own journalism-related projects. Working towards a degree in journalism is exciting because you don’t just get to do “real” journalism once you graduate; you get to do it while you’re in school!

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76 thoughts on “4 Things I Learned In My First Year of Journalism School

  1. Congratulations on a great first year, Sherina. Asking what you have learned like is an important way to bring that learning together.

    1. That’s a really good question! On one hand, I was surprised that we didn’t have exams; the workload seemed to go by faster when it was broken into the story days. But that was just for one class–for another journalism class we had weekly assignments (mostly dealing with photography and multimedia), and those were a bit more work than I expected!

  2. Congratulations on finishing your first year! Those are great tips for people interested in becoming a journalist.. It looks like you had fun during the course if the year.. overall great! Pictures are amaZing also.

  3. It sounds like you’ve had an exciting year-have you found most people willing to offer their time for your interviews or have you had some experiences where they’ve been more hesitant or actually refused? Good luck on your next year of Journalism studies!

    1. Thank you!! I think in terms of ‘streeter’ interviews, where I’m just interviewing someone on the street, most people are pretty open to sharing their thoughts (for an audio interview, anyways–people are certainly more hesitant to be on video). As for more expert sources, it can kind of go both ways; I’ve had some really great sources who are more than willing to chat, but I’ve also had countless people simply not reply to my emails.

  4. It’s exciting to see that you were able to get so much practical experience in a field you love; I’m a little jealous! One of the things that I learned in my own classes was that you always have to make sure the story will hold value to your audience. Sometimes that meant figuring out how to get people in Virginia Beach care about an earthquake in, say, Guam. Wasn’t always easy, haha.

  5. I’m at uni now with my coursemate and a lot of what you said rings true even from the UK. I also felt like I was witnessing history when I saw those final votes being tallied up on that cold 9AM. Journalism really opens up the world for me, I find.

  6. These are tremendous lessons for any student, not just journalism 🙂 Next week my posts are all from individuals about what they have learned the last year. I am going to repost this as part of my series, if that’s okay. 😉

  7. I’m in my first year of my Multimedia Journalism course, at the University of Essex. I found this blog really insightful and I agree that over the year you end up with a lot pieces of written work that you’re really proud of.. It would mean a lot if you could go check out my blog and give me any feedback?

  8. Its really interesting learning your key take aways from your first year of journalism. I love the photos you shared with us. I think that I learn a lot faster when my studies are hands on and it sounds like your course work was hands on and really got you moving in the directions you enjoy.

  9. Came over from the Community Pool and love what you listed here. I like the approach of finding at least 4 good voices. I think it’s important. Nowadays so often you see people giving statements and can only shake your head about what they have to say. No real message. Keep it up!

  10. I really like to be a journalist when I became an adult and this post helps a lot because the list also acts as tips and advices, so thank you. And oh my god, the photos are amazing! I’m gushing out because I love a good photography!

  11. It’s a post like this that makes me wish I did journalism instead of public relations (but I really do LOVE public relations. A lot.) I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was ten years old, and I’m finally taking a step towards that by applying for a graduate diploma in journalism. Kind of funny how some things come full circle.

      1. I found that PR is more dynamic because we can emote a lot more than a journalist. We can also have our fingers in a few more pies, so to speak. I will have to take my journalism course to say for sure, but I think they’re like cousins! (If that makes sense.)

  12. Well-done Sherina!, you have found your dream vocation, work on it until it blossoms , polish it until it shines like the sun.
    I enjoyed every of the single lessons you learnt in your first year of journalism school.

  13. Oh, I didn’t know you were a fellow student journalist. Hello!

    I certainly agree with a lot of points in this. I was incredibly fortunate (and thankful) to be taught photography in my second year of university, and it’s an important skill to have. Us journalists have to almost become robots in a sense!

    Interesting that you’ve been told to get at least four voices for a story – something which we’re not instructed to do over here. Although, as you later mentioned, you can’t just hope that one specific expert will get back to you – you have to make a lot of calls!

    As for me, I also love journalism for the history aspect, but it’s also for the people you get to meet. Understanding people’s different backgrounds and life stories really is fascinating.

    It’s great to hear your thoughts on life as a journalism student!

    1. Haha, that’s so true! Journalism isn’t just writing anymore.

      For the four voices, it’s mostly one expert and three ‘streeters’ (random people on the street) who we get kind of a citizen perspective from. In the “real world” of journalism I don’t see streeters used as much as we used them this year–especially in print–but I think it’s a good opportunity to practice interviewing skills! It’s really interesting to hear your perspective as well!

      1. Oh, now that makes sense. I know what you mean though, in that ‘streeters’ (we call them ‘vox pops’) aren’t used that often unless it’s really worth it. I think I tend to aim for two or three voices in my stories.

  14. love this post, i’m a journalism student in Liverpool, currently in South Africa doing an internship -check out my blog if you get a minute!

  15. Thank you for sharing this! I am currently in my first year of a Journalism degree and reading your post has excited me if truth be told. Thank you once again!

  16. I totally agree with finding more sources than needed. At my college newspaper the worst thing is when someone stops getting sources because they feel like they have enough but really they aren’t thinking about what the story is asking for. Great listicle!

  17. Hi Sherina, I came across your blog on Reader and found your style to be interesting. It’s funny because I just graduated with a degree in Journalism with an option in Public Relations from California State University, Chico and a lot of what you discussed is what I learned during my four years. I like that you comment on the political situation in the U.S. from a Canadian standpoint. My mom is from Toronto, but moved to California a long time ago, but maintains her Canadian views so I kind of get views from both sides of the spectrum. As a journalism student, I was often questioned why I would want to go into a “dying occupation” but I just shook my head and kept on chugging along, knowing that this world needs journalists at this time more than ever. Keep up the good work!

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