Top 10 tips for getting through your first semester of j-school

So you’ve decided to go to j-school? Don’t worry—we’ll help you! Two former teaching assistants from Western University offer their advice for getting through it all.  By Madeline McNair and Rubab Abid So you’ve decided to go to j-school? Don’t worry—we’ll help you! Two former teaching assistants from Western University offer their advice for getting…

So you’ve decided to go to j-school? Don’t worry—we’ll help you! Two former teaching assistants from Western University offer their advice for getting through it all. 

By Madeline McNair and Rubab Abid

So you’ve decided to go to j-school? Don’t worry—we’ll help you! Two former teaching assistants from Western University offer their advice for getting through it all. 

1. Live and breathe the news

We know it sounds strange, but in order to become an effective and critical journalist you need to be familiar with the news. Whoa, did we just blow your minds? Just stay with us here.

As an upstanding citizen with a keen sense of responsibility and an undying love for Peter Mansbridge, you should be following the daily news anyway. But as a student, the best way to truly understand the art of journalism is by studying how the news is developed and produced on a daily basis by professionals. You should read a least two newspapers a day (local and national), listen to the radio on your way to school, watch the nightly newscast and follow respected reporters and news organizations on Twitter. 

Journalism isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. Get into it.  

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2. Kiss MLA style goodbye

Congratulations, you got in to j-school! Now please forget everything you think you know about writing. Listen, you may have an undergraduate degree in English, you may have an encyclopedic understanding of War and Peace, you may have been taught the fundamentals of writing by Shakespeare himself—but all that means nothing here at j-school.

In journalism, we like to keep things short, clear and to-the-point. That means no flowery language, no run-on sentences, no cliché phrases and for the love of god, no thesis statements! As journalists, you need to re-train your brain to condense large amounts of information into short, compelling paragraphs. Don’t feel like you need to overcompensate with big words and technical language. Trust us, your story will be just as compelling if you keep your thoughts simple and succinct.

3. Give broadcast a chance

As TAs and recent j-school grads ourselves, we’ve noticed a lot of students come into j-school thinking they want to pursue a career in print and only print. They’re uninterested or unfamiliar with broadcast media and are reluctant to learn it. Well, we hate to break it to you, but gone are the days of print journalism as a stand-alone medium. As the industry heads further towards multimedia journalism, young reporters need to learn it all—radio, television and online. And as most students realize, if you keep an open mind and give broadcast a chance, you’ll love it faster than you can say “reporting live.”

4. Pick up the phone. Email is the new snail mail

A lot of j-school students are scared to pick up the phone and cold call a potential source. Imagine that—someone whose career is centred on talking to people is afraid of talking to people. But when you’re just starting out, it can be intimidating and nerve wracking. So you hide behind your computer screen and opt to send out a carefully drafted email and wait for a response. The problem is that you don’t actually have the luxury of waiting for that response. There will be days when you need a clip from a source within the hour, or it’s seven at night and you need to book an interview for the next morning. The best skill you can learn as a young journalist is to close your laptop and pick up the phone. You’ll connect with sources much faster, and nine times out of 10 someone will call you back before they get around to answering that email.

5. Your recorder is your best friend

It’s a good idea to start recording all your interviews, whether they are for radio, print or television. Not only will it make your life easier, but it will ensure that all the facts and quotes in your story are as accurate as possible.

The biggest mistake students make when conducting interviews is thinking they can just write everything down in their notes or somehow remember a good quote. That does not happen. You are not a wizard, and that chicken scratch you call your notes will be even more illegible at two in the morning the night before your deadline.

Don’t make that mistake. Take a recorder with you wherever you go—you never know when you’ll stumble on a story and need it.

6. Don’t ever say “I can’t find a story.” There’s always a story

Trust us, there is nothing quite like the vomit-inducing anxiety of having to find a good story under a tight deadline. You crack open your laptop, start typing “good story idea” into Google and the next thing you know you’re in the midst of a YouTube cat video marathon. After a few failed searches, you give up and start looking into applications for Clown College.

But here’s the thing: no matter how frustrated and hopeless your search may seem, there is  always a story to tell. You just need to look in the right places.

You won’t always find your stories in the local paper or on last night’s newscast—it’s called “news” for a reason! Some of the most unique and compelling news stories come from the most unconventional places. Talk to the cashier at your local grocery store, read community notice boards and posters, go to city hall meetings, ask your parents about their day…and then actually listen!

As a student and budding journalist, you need to treat every interaction as a potential story idea.What do you see? Who do you see? What is happening? Why does this matter? There’s your story.

7. Don’t make stuff up


We’ve all been there. You’re tired, you’re stressed, deadline is fast approaching and you’ve already ingested half a jar of Nutella. You don’t have any useable quotes, your story has no flow and you’re starting to really freak out.

So you’re tempted to add a few words here and there to make that quote sound perfect. You consider rounding up some of those figures to make them look more compelling. Or you make up a character because you’ve run out of sources for your story. Don’t do it.

If there is anything, you take away from j-school, it’s that you can’t make stuff up. Even if you’re so tired your eyes are about to fall out of their sockets. Even if you think it will make your story sound more interesting. Even if Walter Cronkite himself comes down from journalism heaven and demands that you fudge that last quote.

Don’t do it. Ever. End of discussion.

8. Embrace social media

We don’t mean adding your mom on Facebook, or uploading selfies on Instagram (though hey, if that’s your thing, no judgement here!).

As a young journalist, it’s important for you to have an online presence. Most news organizations are incorporating social media into their reporting and they’ll expect you to do so as well.

Get on Twitter. Start following everyone from your professors to news organizations to politicians. See how other journalists use social media to advance their reporting and learn from them. Tweet and re-tweet stories that interest you, and engage others in an online discussion.

Twitter can also be a great resource to help you find and contact sources. It’s an incredible platform for reaching people quickly and directly. As long as you maintain a professional account, there’s no reason why 140 characters can’t lead to an 800-word story.

9. File and drink

No, we’re not encouraging anyone to develop a drinking problem. This tip is more to highlight how important it is to let go of your stories once they’re done. You will never have the perfect story—there will always be that one additional interview you wish you had, or those 10 extra minutes in the editing suite that you really could have used.

But the moment deadline comes and you hit send, none of that matters anymore. And as a rookie journalist, you need to learn to let go of those nagging what-if situations.

That’s not to say you can’t learn from your mistakes. Acknowledge the mistake, learn from it, but don’t dwell on it.

If letting go means hitting the pub with some classmates to unwind after a long day in the newsroom, then go for it. First round is on us.

10. Have fun

You’re in a field that promises to be exciting. No doubt the program ahead of you will be busy, challenging and sometimes (read: all the time) stressful—but it will also yield some of the best times of your life. You will surprise yourself with what you can do as you learn new skills and lessons. While most students spend their days holed up in lecture halls or labs, in j-school, you get to spend your time out in the field, talking to people and sharing their stories.

You’re surrounded by classmates with similar interests and passions and you will form some life-long friendships in the coming years. So even though you have some painful all nighters in the studio ahead of you, there will always be someone else there, weeping right alongside you.

And when you do find yourself having a rough day, remember that you’ve chosen a profession where no two days are ever the same. So dig deep, keep going and remember to have some fun.

Madeline McNair earned her Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University, in London, Ont., this past spring, and spent the summer working as a TA for the television broadcast course. She currently works at CTV as a researcher and associate producer for W5.  


Rubab Abid is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Journalism program at Western University. She has a specialization in radio broadcasting and was a radio teaching assistant this past summer.


Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.