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Home > Publications > Quill > Gen J: Some essentials are only learned on the job


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Friday, August 1, 2008
Gen J: Some essentials are only learned on the job

By Jaclyn Trop

I was alone, walking across the George Washington Bridge, when it started to pour. The sky darkened, and the wind stirred the choppy Hudson River below. Cars whipped past. Then it began to rain harder. I had graduated from Columbia University’s Journalism School less than 24 hours earlier, and I wasn’t about to let some rain get in the way of pursuing my first post-J-school story.

I started working as a stringer for The New York Post earlier in the semester on my days off from class. The routine was always the same: I would check in with the desk at the beginning of my shift and “sit tight” until news broke and an editor sent me to one of the city’s five boroughs to cover it. My assignments could be monotonous (waiting at the bus station for a glimpse of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s call girl) or electrifying (interviewing a man whose roommate stood on trial after kicking his dog to death), and I stumbled through each one, making a series of mistakes that have shown me what not to do as a journalist.

But when I was sent uptown to the George Washington Bridge, where witnesses reported seeing a man fall from a pylon 45 minutes earlier, I committed a succession of blunders that taught me as much as a year in the classroom did.

Communicate with your editor

When my editor dispatched me to the scene, he knew only that the unidentified man had been pulled from the water, injured but alive. He had heard the man was a construction worker but wasn’t sure. I needed to go to the scene to confirm the story and report the details. When I got there, I found a police officer who told me the man was not a construction worker but a “jumper.”

What luck, I thought — the inherent drama of a suicide attempt would make for a much better story than a construction accident. Blinded by my own enthusiasm, I quickly called my editor to tell him that I arrived at the scene and hung up without even thinking to share with him what I had learned about the man’s identity.

The rain came as soon as I set out for the New Jersey tower, where the police officer told me the man had jumped. I called my aunt to say I would not be able to make it downtown in time for the graduation dinner she had planned for me.

This is what they meant at school when they said being a journalist meant making sacrifices, I thought. It’s finally happening. I marched forward with determination.

I had almost reached the tower when my editor called.

“Hey,” he said. “It was only a jumper. You can split.”

I was so shortsighted that it hadn’t occurred to me to give him that information when I spoke to him 45 minutes earlier. But if I had, I probably wouldn’t have been stuck walking across the George Washington Bridge in a downpour. And I would have saved my editor valuable time.

As soon as I learned that the man was a jumper and not a construction worker, I should have asked myself why the paper would have wanted the story. Every story needs a hook; what would this story’s hook have been?

I didn’t realize until later that a suicide attempt would have been newsworthy only if it had followed a large-scale police chase or if the man was fleeing the house where he had just killed his wife. Though I assumed a story about a fallen construction worker would not stir much interest, that was the one my editor wanted, because it would have been the latest incident in a string of construction mishaps and safety hazards in the city.

Be prepared for rain

By the time I returned to the Manhattan side of the bridge and got on the subway to head home, I was not only downtrodden but disheveled and soaking. An umbrella and presence of mind — two essentials they never told us about in J-school — would have made all the difference.

Jaclyn Trop graduated in 2005 from the journalism department at Boston University, where she was a staff reporter for The Daily Free Press, as well as founder and editor-in-chief of her own satirical newspaper, The Pedestrian. She received her Master’s degree from Columbia University.

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