Workplace wisdom: four tips

by Aleanna Siacon

When you’re a young professional, it’s easy to feel on top of world, but it can feel like a gut-wrenching blow to drop even one of the many balls you convinced yourself you were expertly juggling.

Last summer I left my home, family and friends to work in a city I’d never set foot in, and I walked into the newsroom of the USA Today network’s Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., excited to show everyone just how much I had to offer. Although it was truly a great summer, I underestimated just how many lessons I still needed to learn, thanks to my naiveté.  Coming away from my time in Rochester, I can’t think of better people to have learned from.

Amid the many stories I covered – a murder trial, NFL training camp, and churches and wheelchair accessibility – incredible lessons were writ between the lines. Here are some of them:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

After two years of living on campus at Wayne State University in Detroit, away from my parents, I hadn’t anticipated that I would feel homesick, but I did – and it was discombobulating. I had regarded myself as an independent person. I’d traveled abroad for weeks without my family, but I always had a familiar face to keep me company. In Rochester, I truly felt alone. I was 19 with no friends nearby, living in a sublet with roommates who had their own busy lives and working in a newsroom I was just getting to know. Despite occasional offers from fellow newsroom interns to have lunch or dinner, I was mostly left to my own devices. I don’t think I’d ever called my mom so often.

Figuring out how to get comfortable when I was so uncomfortable was my first hurdle. I spent weekends going to movies or exploring the city alone and reading lots of books. I found it disarming at first but realized it was an experience I needed.

I’d seen myself as a journalist who would go anywhere in the world, wherever the stories were, without hesitation. I understand now that that kind of lifestyle means a level of loneliness sprinkled with the uneasy feeling that lack of familiarity brings. I learned how to handle those emotions. I became stronger by figuring out how to adapt and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Ask for help, especially when you don’t think you need it

For me, being an intern comes with a burning desire to exceed expectations and make good impressions. I strive to be the best I can be, and with this trait comes the tendency to be a yes-girl. I will move mountains to hit every deadline and push past my limits to keep from disappointing anyone. Maintaining this conflated can-do attitude might sound good, but it feels horrible. After my workload increased, it dawned on me that what I feared more than saying “no” was admitting that I didn’t pull off what was asked of me. I put down the cross I was trying to bear and started asking for help.

Communication is key. When I worried about not completing a story because sources weren’t responding, or about taking on an assignment when I already had too much on my plate, I found the best action was to make sure my editors knew what I was working on and how I was progressing. They were more than happy to help me figure out how to make things happen.

Bounce back from mistakes and become better

Mistakes will happen when you work for a daily newspaper with tight deadlines. I felt awful writing my first corrections. It hits you like a sack of bricks as your brain races to wrap itself around the fact that you, a self-proclaimed harbinger of truth, got something wrong. However, I learned that the most important part of making a mistake is admitting it as soon as it comes to your attention and making sure your correction doesn’t contain any errors or inaccuracies. Then you can figure out how you went wrong and put up some defenses to make sure you don’t repeat the mistakes. For me, that meant taking a step back and writing more slowly. I paused whenever I saw numbers, dates, times, locations and first and last names in my copy, and searched for confirmation. I also put out follow-up emails or phone calls to double check the accuracy of my work before I filed it.

Admitting I’m wrong feels terrible, but misinforming readers is far worse. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I may not be a perfect writer, and I’ve learned how to respond quickly and properly when mistakes happen.

Thank your colleagues and mentors

In my young career, I’ve worked with many talented writers and editors. At the D&C alone, an entire team of professionals who were willing to answer my questions, offer advice and tell me their stories surrounded me. Watching them work, I learned how to respond to breaking news and write briefs; I improved my news judgment; I better prepared myself for the digital age by learning how to create and edit videos for my stories.

After seeing how many hardworking cogs make up newsroom operations and the work it takes to maintain a web presence and publish in print, I appreciate the journalists who took the time from their workloads to teach and mold me. I ended every day by saying “thank you.” I ended my summer by saying “thank you.” I want to continue saying “thank you” to everyone who helps me along the way.

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