Front Row Seat: What I've learned in my first 3 months at a newspaper
After 15 years of writing for blogs, a weekly, and a music station, our columnist joined the News Tribune in February.
DULUTH — Last winter, when I was considering whether to accept a job as a features reporter at the News Tribune, I asked another newspaper journalist what it would be like: "If there's a fire at a warehouse or something on a Friday night, will I be dropping everything and running down there?"
"No," she said, accurately. "That won't be you."
I had a lot to learn about life at a newspaper. While I came to this job with 15 years of experience writing and reporting, I'd never worked at an actual newspaper of record before.
I've written for an independent news website, an alternative weekly newspaper, a pop culture blog, monthly magazines, an orchestra program, an art exhibition catalog, one of those free magazines you pick up at supermarkets, and even a consumer insight firm that hired me to write a report on the subject of — wait for it — the United States of America. The whole country.
So I was pretty sure I was ready for anything in terms of writing challenges, but I hadn't written for a newspaper since the days of assembling my high school paper with a dot-matrix printer, a pair of scissors and Scotch tape. (That's not on my resume, but yes, I did mention it in the News Tribune job interview.)
After three months on the job, here are some of the things I've learned about being a newspaper reporter.
Not all reporters are the same. While all reporters have the same fundamental job — find out what's happening in the world and write accurate articles about it — there are important differences in how, when and what we report.
That hypothetical warehouse fire? If that were to happen, a news reporter assigned to be on call for that night would cover it. There would also be an editor available to edit and publish the story when it was ready, as well as to help with updates in the case of a developing story.
I'm a features reporter, which means my main job is to write stories that are timely, but not breaking. When I do cover breaking news, it tends to be show announcements or other things that don't have major implications for, say, public safety. If a local theater company were for some reason to choose 9 p.m. on a Friday to announce their upcoming season of plays, that could probably wait until Monday.
Most reporters have some form of a beat, each writer being generally expected to be a go-to, knowledgeable person for news in that realm. My beat is arts and entertainment, and one of the most rewarding parts of my job has turned out to be working with my colleagues on other beats when they intersect with mine. For example, when a new art space opens (business), when a musician plays at a local school (education) or when movie cameras roll due to county incentives (government).
Space is flexible, even in print. After a lifetime of watching movies about newspapers where the front page editor is holding 15 inches of A1 for a reporter who's glued to his phone chasing a hot lead, I had this idea that when I took a story assignment, I'd know there was going to be a precise amount of newspaper real estate waiting for me below the story about a UMD TikTok influencer, above the ad for a local liquor store, and to the right of the tempeh recipe.
In some cases that is the very general idea — I typically write the "centerpiece" article for each Wednesday's Lifestyle section, which means I know I'm responsible every week for a substantial reported story with strong visuals — but it doesn't mean I need to hit exactly 1,023 words or there's going to be an awkward blank space.
When I wrote for the (now defunct) Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, I actually did have a very specific word count to hit, as the editors held the same space on the same page each week for a theater review. At the News Tribune, there's more flexibility to arrange images and other elements to make the page fit the story rather than vice versa. That means I can generally make each story as long, or short, as it needs to be.
People understand what you do. I appreciate the irony of including this observation in a column that's premised on explaining what I do — but at a basic level, when you call someone and identify yourself as a reporter for the News Tribune, they get it. Even if they don't know who I am personally, they know what I'm doing and why.
I loved my last job, but it often needed to be explained to people, whether I was calling a source or just making small talk at a party. "I work at The Current, as in the music station. No, I'm not a DJ. I'm a digital producer. No, that doesn't mean I produce music. It means I write articles, for the website. Yes, we have a website. I also write some tweets."
Now, those conversations are almost too easy. What do I do? "I write for the paper." OK. Got it. So ... how about that weather we're having, eh?
The newsroom really does feel like a newsroom. When I go to work at the News Tribune, I sit at a computer in a cubicle. That's how it was at The Current, but not at the job I had prior to that: The Twin Cities Daily Planet was such a small operation, we didn't even have cubicles. We all sat at a table in a room we rented inside a Wells Fargo branch, a constant puzzlement to the customers who'd peer through our windows trying to figure out what kind of bankers wore hoodies and won blogging trophies.
My News Tribune cube has low walls — so I can see and talk with other reporters and editors. There's an emergency scanner that's always on, so we can hear in real time what first responders are responding to. (Don't let your family listen if you're trying to convince them to let you buy a snowmobile.) Giant letters reading "Duluth News Tribune" rest on a ledge near the coat trees and an American flag. There are newspaper racks holding all the latest editions.
It's not required to work from the newsroom; in addition to being out in the community covering stories, many reporters now write from home. As a newbie, though, I've been going in most days to make use of my desk, meet my colleagues, and — yes — enjoy the newsy ambiance. Got any hot leads for me to chase?
Duluth actor Daniel Durant, a star of Best Picture winner "CODA," appears in a new film — but sorry, you can't see this one in town yet. In fact, you can't see it anywhere. "Millstone" is a 16-minute thriller that writer/director Peter Kimball likens to "Parasite." Not only does it share that South Korean film's themes and tone, Kimball told WAMU, it's also subtitled. "Millstone" was shot entirely in American Sign Language; Durant told the Star Tribune he appreciated the fact that the characters' Deafness is incidental to the plot, rather than being the focus of the story. Kimball is currently submitting "Millstone" to film festivals.
The "delightful weirdos" (their phrase, not mine) of Duluth's annual Smelt Parade returned to the Lakewalk on Mother's Day. If you enjoy the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe, you can thank In the Heart of the Beast, the Minneapolis theater company where founder Jim Ouray got his start with large-scale puppetry. Another Heart of the Beast alumna, artist Julie Boada, is leading a free family creative workshop Saturday at the Duluth Art Institute's Lincoln Park building. The theme of the workshop, which runs from noon to 3 p.m., is "The Places We're From." See duluthartinstitute.org for more information.
Last but not least, Zeitgeist ties it all together this week. It hosts a new film festival, the Smelt Parade smelt feed, and on Friday, its annual fundraiser. According to a news release, the "Spirit of the Times" event will feature "live entertainment, unique silent auction items, music, craft cocktails and beer, heavy appetizers prepared by Zeitgeist’s Restaurant exclusive for the event, and most importantly, community." For tickets ($100 — it's a fundraiser, after all) and information, see zeitgeistarts.com.