Learn from the greats

“How the #$%& are you gonna know how to be great if you don’t study greatness? Look at the game tape!” ~ Tracy Morgan

The first question I ask student journalists is, what do you read?

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s met with a lot of blank stares.

No matter what field you want to achieve greatness in, you need to study. If you want to be a chef, you practice preparing dishes, and you read cookbooks by the greatest chefs. If you want to be an actor, you find time to get on stage while studying the work of the greatest actors. If you want to be a scientist, you read up on the works of the scientists that came before you and find new ways to expand on their work.

Working as a journalist shouldn’t be any different. One of the best ways to get better is to study.

read-all-about-itIn some of my first meetings with students, I sometimes hear things like “I don’t watch the news,” or “I don’t read the newspaper.” It’s a big moment of clarity when I tell them it should be mandatory.

Not only does studying work as an inspiration or as a way to compare your work to professional work, but it also shows how similar the process is. Professional media types are still doing the same thing student journalists are: finding sources, shooting video, writing stories. But professionals have two distinct advantages – better equipment, and the willingness to study and get better.

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

One of my biggest aha! moments as a reporter came from watching stories that aired on ABC World News. I saw a story on new requirements for PE classes in schools, and I thought to myself, “I could have made that.” The shooting, the writing, the interview techniques, the standups, I was already doing those same things at KDRV. So I watched the story again and again, picking up new ways to write sentences, new ways to frame shots, new ways to incorporate graphics. And I improved in my next story. The more I watched, the more ways I saw to sharpen my own skills.

Talent alone doesn’t get you there. See what others are doing, emulate it, then improve upon it.

It’s an idea shared by journalists, meteorologists, writers and hosts. I reached out to people working professionally in the media today, and they shared their inspirations.

KTVL reporter Whitney Clark studies the work of CBS reporters, including Steve Hartman and Charlie Rose.

“Steve Hartman! He’s a great writer and I enjoy his stories every week,” she wrote. “When it comes to anchoring/producing – CBS this morning is amazing. Always well-produced. Charlie Rose asks the best questions. Him. Norah and Gayle also do an excellent job of mixing hard news with some personality.”

Geoff Riley, host on Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore., said he was inspired by Tom Brokaw.

“…among other things, I learned that your name goes LAST in a news update, not first,” he wrote.

Meteorologist Megan Parry of 10News in San Diego studied the work of Los Angeles meteorologist Dallas Raines, and learned from him in person as an intern.

“I love him on air, he just had an air about him and I wanted to do that,” Parry tweeted.

For KGW executive producer Wiley Post, he can find examples of good work on shows like Sportscenter or NBC Nightly News. He also said he studies his own work, looking for ways to improve.

Ryan Pfeil, reporter for the Mail Tribune in Medford, Ore., finds himself on Poynter to learn more about journalism. He also said he reads Malcolm Gladwell, and “anyone who can do narrative really well.”

SWX sports reporter Greg Talbott closely listens to sportscasters Keith Olbermann and Jon Miller.

“Olbermann taught me that it’s best to write/anchor creatively. Miller taught me how to use my voice as an instrument in play by play,” he tweeted.

And some sources don’t even need to come from news. Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Tony Schick said he was inspired by “Fletch,” the film starring Chevy Chase as a newspaper reporter.

And that’s really the key – your inspiration needs to come from somewhere. You need to identify top quality work and study it.

Sports Illustrated NBA writer Ben Golliver visited our students here at Oregon State in October, and one of the biggest pieces of advice he gave was to read, regardless of what you are reading. Read books, look at the lyrics of your favorite musician, click on articles, pick up a magazine, just read something. Because everything you read becomes internalized, and helps you recognize your own strengths and weaknesses to find your voice as a writer.

You can’t be a journalist if you don’t read the newspaper, or watch the nightly news, or visit news web sites. Find something or someone what inspires you to be better, and keep reading!

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