I had the opportunity to speak with former reporter and editor for the Asbury Park Press, and freelance writer, Stacey Bersani this weekend. Though she is no longer working in the industry, she has a wealth of advice for burgeoning journalists.
She has a communications degree with a journalism concentration from Marist College and an English minor. She worked for the Asbury Park Press for 8 years before freelancing for 7 years, which led to a job at the autonomous Middlesex County Improvement Authority. Currently, she works for the county.
The following has been paraphrased from our phone conversation.
What was your first job in journalism after leaving college?
My first journalism job was a reporter at the Asbury Park Press. I had the summer between junior and senior year of college interning for the newspaper.
How was it?
The job was a “great way to get my feet wet.” Most journalists start out on the police beat looking at reports. In one’s first journalism job, it’s good to start making contacts in each town that you work in.
What tips do you have for reporters?
“It’s good if you really want to learn about a wide array of topics and subjects.” Being a reporter provides you with this opportunity. You have to know your topic very well, “you have to understand all that, and then make other people understand it.” That is a reporter’s job. “When you get that, you can take it in any direction.”
Do you have any advice for those who want to freelance?
“You’ve got to have discipline. You’ve got to be able to sit down and not procrastinate.” Freelancers have to follow deadlines more strictly than normal reporters since they aren’t regularly employed by the paper they’re writing for. They have to be self-motivated to find work.
What advice do you have for editors?
“Editing is a whole different way of looking at things.” You shouldn’t want to totally re-write someone’s piece, it’s their name on the byline after all. You should work to make the piece better instead. “I really like that aspect of it. Make it the best it could possibly be.”
The rest of Mrs. Bersani’s answers were taken from e-mail.
We discussed freelancers today in class and my professor said they can’t really turn down a writing gig. Do you find this to be true?
Don’t turn down a job if you can’t afford to. Freelancing is a unique career path that relies not only your ability to write well and on deadline, but also to forge and maintain relationships with those who will hire you. Be open to writing pieces for newspapers and magazines. In my time as a freelancer, I wrote these, but also copy for radio ads and brochures and annual report material. You must never procrastinate.
How does one get a job in journalism?
First, write for every newspaper or magazine at the high school and college level that you can. Send Op-Ed or Letters to the Editor into local papers. Take as many journalism and communications courses as you can. Write a letter around January or February of your school year to various newspapers, radio stations, television stations and magazines asking for summer internship opportunities. This is how I wound up with a summer internship between my junior and senior year of college with the Asbury Park Press, which at the time was the state’s second largest paper and well known for its investigative journalism. I also took advantage of my AP credits from high school and took summer classes, so that in my senior year of college, I was able to perform two internships: one in the public relations office of a local hospital (where I learned design and interviewing techniques) and one with a local newspaper where of course, I was able to add to my clips files. With all the experience, I was hired right out of college by the Asbury Park Press.
How can one prepare for work as reporter/editor/freelancer?
Again: write, write, write. Take on assignments of various lengths and topics. Identify people within your school or at an internship who can act as a mentor, giving you not only the academic education you need, but the soft skills, like interview techniques, how to meet deadlines, how to prioritize, how to ask difficult questions.
Is there any advice you have for conducting an interview?
I always started with getting to know the person a little before getting into the questions I needed to write my story. It puts you both at ease. Ask how to spell their full name (including middle initial if they use one). One of the worst things you could ever do is spell a subject’s name wrong. You instantly lose credibility. Ask the date of their birth (so you don’t have to ask how old they are). Get a feel for the person behind the story. Share a little about yourself. Then you can begin by asking questions for your story. Most importantly, remember this is a conversation and it may veer in one direction or another. That is fine, as long as you get what you went there for. Always get their contact information and let them know that, as you develop your story, you may be calling them back for follow-up questions. If you make an appointment to meet them in person, be on time. No excuses.
I understand you are not working in journalism right now. Can you specify what your current job is and what it entails?
I am currently the Director of the Office of Communication for Middlesex County, which has more than 815,000 residents. I work closely with the Board of Chosen Freeholders and the County Administrator to ensure that the County’s mission and message are relayed to our citizens. My primary job is to ensure that the people of Middlesex County are kept informed of the programs, services and facilities available to them and to oversee emergency notifications and alerts when necessary. I, along with my staff, accomplish this through conducting interviews, writing stories for publication, writing press releases, coordinating events and interviews with public officials, taking photos, editing all brochures, newsletters, posters, columns, etc. that are issued by the County. I oversee the content of the County’s new Intranet site, an internal website for the County’s employees that keeps them up-to-date with policies, procedures, events, announcements and the like. I also am the project manager for the County’s new, dynamic and user-friendly website, which is to debut later this year. I write speeches, answer calls from the media, coordinate events and media coverage.
I only got a little bit of what was said on the phone. Could you go over again any general advice I may have missed?
To be a successful writer or editor, it’s always best to practice. Write often. Mix hard news with feature writing. Use imagery, alliteration and other tools to hone your skills. Most importantly, never put out a product of which you are not proud. We are often our own worst critics, but when it comes to writing, that is a good thing.
My favorite “job” to this day is editing. I personally love working to make something better. Oftentimes, it means working one-on-one with the author of a piece to mold the story into its best possible form. I continue to do that, but more often, I find myself editing brochure ad copy and design. Unless the ad or the brochure gets your message across, it isn’t doing its job, no matter how cool, pretty or eye-catching it appears on first blush.