Some of my favorite great writers — Nora Ephron, Hemingway, Jennifer Weiner, Erik Larson (Devil in the White City) — started out as newspaper reporters. I did, too. I wish everyone who wrote got to — had to — do this. Everyone who wants to write (fiction or non, magazines or books) should spend time at a local paper. I used to tell this to journalism students who came seeking my advice: Go slave away at a local paper first, then come talk to me about your Entertainment Weekly dreams. This gave me a chance to use my “old grizzled broad” persona, which I liked.
I spent all of my college summers and the first five years of my grownup career at local papers. It felt like 25 years. I blame all my signs of aging on the time I spent at The Daily Herald, The Herald-News, The Daily Southtown, The Hemet News, The Daily Pilot, and The Press-Enterprise. I sat through planning commission meetings, listened to police scanners, asked strangers for their opinions about everything from the weather to the plans for an airport nearby to a new strip club. At my first real job, The Daily Pilot, I wrote three to four stories a day. At most of these jobs, I wrote at least one a day. I hated almost every minute of it, and I’m so glad I did it.
But we don’t have nearly as many local papers anymore. If I really want to slip into old grizzled broad mode, I’ll note that instead we have our early-20s children writing Tweets instead, which is maybe training for writing tight, but not much else. However, here is what working at a local newspaper teaches you as an aspiring writer, should you be so lucky as to find one that can pay you anything near a living wage:
1. Writers’ block is a myth. When you have to write four stories a day, you don’t have time to whine and ponder. You write, write, write, then go home and collapse. This is why I know that writers’ block is not real. It’s your own stubborn refusal to put words on paper.
2. You can probably write faster than you’re writing now. This is not to say writing fast is always good, but that it can be done when necessary. This makes any deadline doable.
3. Speaking of deadlines: Meet them at all costs. Book people, in particular, seem to take deadlines as vague guidelines, friendly suggestions, or jokes. Newspaper people take them as seriously as death. (Many take them far more seriously than death, given the risks they take for stories and the heavy drinking they indulge in.) What’s nice about newspaper training is that you learn the hard way to hit deadlines precisely. This makes those book people and magazine people — who take them mostly to fairly seriously, though nothing beats a daily paper — like you. Nay, it makes them in awe of you. Even if you’re an only mediocre writer, you will win many fans among editors by delivering on time.
4. Deadlines are great! Here’s why I love a deadline: It means even the most torturous story has to end by a certain point. It has to either go to print or die. It’s a very literal demonstration of the idea that “all things must pass.”
5. Talking to people is cool. Even if you eventually go on to write fiction, having talked to people, and continuing to talk to people, helps build wonderful characters. It also helps build your character: You learn about other people’s lives, you learn to see things from their perspective. You gain empathy. If our media really is “the liberal media,” I believe this is why.
6. Learning weird stuff is cool. You get to dip into all kinds of strange, hidden little worlds you’d never even think about — or, oftentimes, want to think about — otherwise. But it turns out there’s something interesting to be learned about even water and sewage systems. That’s one of the things I once learned a ton about. Among the other subjects I learned about are: neonatal intensive care units, heart transplants, Seventh Day Adventists, planning and zoning for strip clubs, noise levels at airports, bay dredging, the light levels generated by car dealerships, and surf conditions. You can imagine any of those leading to a fantastic setting or plot for a novel.
7. Writing affects people. You get this very quickly on the job at a local paper, especially if you get something wrong. You often live among the people you’re covering, and you definitely have to maintain ongoing relationships with them. This is great, terrifying — and important to remember throughout your career.