Knowing she loved language and writing, but unsure of where an English degree would take her, Eastern Illinois University senior Amy Simpson decided to major in journalism at nearly the last minute. "I had a growing interest in photojournalism, and I didn't want to start college with an undecided major,” she tells JournalismSchools.com.
Now, she works 40 hours or more a week at Eastern Illinois University's student newspaper, The Daily Eastern News, as the managing editor and will graduate in May 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a minor in English. After sifting through Eastern's journalism curriculum, Amy has found what she truly loves to do. “When I graduate in May, I would like to get a job copy editing and/or designing for a midsize to large newspaper.”
Amy has gained a lot of hands-on experience through holding several positions at the Daily Eastern News and landing two professional internships, one with the Effingham Daily News and the other with The State Journal-Register. From reporting to editing to designing, Amy has had her hand at nearly every aspect of putting a newspaper together. This hands-on experience has earned her several scholarships and awards, such as the Journal-Gazette/Times-Courier scholarship and the Curtis MacDougall Newspaper Journalism Award. She is also active in the Mid-America Press Institute and the College Media Advisers group of the Associated Collegiate Press.
“No matter what area of journalism you go into, each day is always new and different. Some days are exciting and others are more mundane, but every day is a new opportunity to try to draw people in and give them the information that they both need and want to know,” she says.
Amy Simpson's Education
How did you choose the journalism program at Eastern Illinois University?
I had heard a lot of great things about the student newspaper and journalism department. My choice came down to Eastern and a larger, more well-known university, and I chose Eastern because of the one-on-one time I could get with experienced professors and the hands-on media opportunities I could take on as an underclassman.
Tell us about your current position at the student newspaper, the Daily Eastern News (DEN). What is a typical day like for you?
I am the managing editor at the DEN for the fall 2006 semester. In addition to being second in charge of the paper under the editor in chief, my duties include keeping track of staff payroll, managing the night staff (copy editors, designers) and generally making sure the editorial side of the newspaper works well with the advertising staff and pressroom activities. I act as night chief and designer/copy editor three nights per week and am in charge of laying out classified ads daily. Depending on how much work I have to do, I spend between two and eight hours (or longer if there are press issues at night) in the newsroom six days per week.
You've had several internship opportunities. Tell us more about your experiences and how they fit in with your journalism education goals.
Working at a college publication is wonderful experience, but it's hard to understand what the professional world of journalism is like until you've worked for a professional newspaper. I have been fortunate to have had two internships. The first was mostly reporting, but I also was able to do quite a bit of work in photography, editing and design. The second was a copy editing internship, which involved both editing and design. The second internship made me realize how exciting it is to work on the copy desk, and I think that's when I decided for certain that's what I want to pursue in the future. Both summers were invaluable experiences, and I am excited to start a third internship during the spring semester. Not only have internships helped me learn about the field and how to improve my own skills, they gave me real-world knowledge that could be applied to the paper at school.
What do you enjoy most about your hands-on reporting/editing/designing experience so far?
Journalism is a field in which I feel I'm making a difference in society. It's also nice to have such a free flow of communication and feedback between journalists and readers. It's great to know the work I'm doing now while I'm in school will benefit me when I get a full-time job. I have found there are very few, “when will I ever use this,” moments while studying in the journalism program.
What do you now know that you wish you had known before you began to pursue your journalism education?
It's something I don't always think about, but under it all, journalism is still a business. Granted, it's (hopefully) a business that thrives on honesty, justice and public service, but it's a business nonetheless. I'm no expert, but I'd imagine there are politics involved in some way at any publication you'd encounter. And that's just something one must prepare to deal with.
Another good thing to know is journalistic writing is not English writing. Space is valuable, so it's important to be able to say a lot in few words. Readers are a tough crowd, so reporters also have to be able to grab people and make them want to read what you're writing. There are countless style rules to abide by, some of which are the opposite of what your English teachers have taught you. This can be a difficult transition.
Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about journalism in order to be successful?
Absolutely. Journalists are servants to the public, and the public can be brutal at times. So it takes passion and determination to deal with that responsibility and do the best job possible. This is also true because of the salary. I don't know of anyone who has gone into journalism for the money. In fact, I know several graduates who have a BA in journalism who had to take a second job in addition to their positions at newspapers. But they truly love what they do.
Education Information & Advice
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?
Decide what is most important to you. If you want to go into journalism, you probably don't care that the football team at College A is in a more prestigious division than College B. (Or do you?) It may sound silly, but think about it. Chose a school based on what you will need in pursuing your education and what the individual program has to offer. Also consider things like class size, faculty and student media. Is it more important that your professors have PhDs or that they've worked at solid newspapers for 35 years? Do you want to be able to get involved in student media as a freshman?
Decide what factors matter most to you personally, then compare and contrast prospective universities based on those. This means don't take the school's reputation as a whole too heavily. Most of the time rankings and other reputation-related comments are based on the overall rather than individual programs. Definitely don't be afraid to stop by, ask questions, contact a few students/alumni/faculty members and ask more questions. If they're journalists, they'll probably be impressed and flattered that you took the time and made the effort.
Are there different considerations for seeking to specialize in a certain area of the journalism field?
Eastern offers specialization options within the journalism major that outline courses students should take for various interests; writing and reporting, editing, photojournalism, emerging media, to name a few. I have focused on newspapers, but most of the advice I received revolved, and revolves, around trying a little bit of everything. It's good to know what you are interested in doing. And if you're sure about it, more experience in individual fields is a great thing.
But dabbling in other areas can help you decide what you want to pursue if you've not yet decided for sure. Keep in mind there are different media to choose from (radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, etc.) as well as different duties within each medium (reporters, editors, designers, photographers, etc.). Being knowledgeable in more than one area – even knowing a little about several areas – can also make you more marketable when it comes time to send out internship and job applications.
What types of specialty journalism technology, computer programs, etc. should students expect to become familiar in school? Through on-the-job training?
The layout programs I've encountered are QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign. Some newspapers may still use PageMaker, but I think most have switched to the above. Other design aides and photo programs used at Eastern are PhotoShop and Illustrator, which are both Adobe. As far as I know, reporters use mostly Microsoft Word or some other word processing program.
Everywhere I've worked has some kind of network or server. For the computer savvy, this may be familiar, but it took me awhile to get used to it. The setup will vary from publication to publication. In my experience, larger papers have more complex and efficient systems, but I think it's safe to count on some kind of system to link all the different parts of the puzzle together and make it easier to produce.
How available are internships? Any tips for landing them? What skills should students expect to gain?
Internships are everywhere. The trick is to take the time and dig in to find the one you want. Don't procrastinate. Most have strict deadlines, and many require several different parts to apply. Working ahead and knowing what is available is always the best way to go. Department professors and advisers are great resources. They likely have contacts in the journalism world and will be willing to help eager students. When applying for internships, remember you may be helping them as much as you want them to help you.
Despite the stereotype interns often get stuck with (making coffee, picking up laundry for the boss, etc., etc.), your work at a professional publication may actually help take some of the work off the permanent staff members – as long as you do your job well. In most cases, they will want to help you as long as you want to help yourself and realize it's not all about you. The people who are teaching you have probably been doing their jobs longer than you have even considered being in the field, and it's important to realize all publications are different, each will have its own style and you are still the student.
After you've applied, don't be afraid to be persistent. Always be respectful, of course, but remember that while you may have been waiting three weeks for one letter from one publication, the one person at said publication has had a million other things to do to keep everything running smoothly and probably isn't keeping you at the top of his or her priority list. The worst they can do is say no. Then you can always try again the next year.
As far as the internship itself, expect to get out of it what you put in. Ask as many questions as you can – you're learning, and there's no better environment in which to do it. To put it simply, you should learn to improve your skills as a journalist. You should get better at what you want to do. But like any other experience, there are many other lessons to be taken from internships, whether they are personal, social or professional.
What other advice can you offer to prospective journalism students?
One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is to be open to all opportunities. Realize right away that you probably will not be a superstar from day one, and you probably will not be working for the biggest or best employers in the country right out of college. Of course there are always exceptions, but for the most part just remember everyone has to start somewhere. Be willing to take assignments other people don't want to take because it will make you that much better in the long run. This will challenge you do to your best and make the most of situations you may not prefer, not to mention test your passion for journalism. Your bosses will also realize you're eager and excited to do what it takes to make it in such a competitive field, and they'll see how you can be a dependable lifesaver when they're in a tight spot. Eventually, you will likely be at the top of the list when it comes to assigning the really great things.
Again, know that ultimately, it's not about you. Journalists are accountable to their audience. The finished product is meant to serve and inform the public, not serve the makers' personal interests. It's nice to see your byline in the paper, but if that's the only reason you want to go into journalism, I'd suggest you're in it for the wrong one.
As I've mentioned, readers can be frustrating – especially on a college campus – but their feedback can also be rewarding and encouraging. So be patient with them and know that not everyone will understand how the media really works or should work. When you have the opportunity, take some time and kill what may be ugly myths in their minds and explain it to them. That's one of the rewarding parts of being a journalist.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your education or your internship experiences goals that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to follow a similar path?
Because I had the opportunity to take dual-credit courses in high school, I'm graduating with a BA in journalism with an English minor in three years. This means I've had to pack the experience of a four-year Eastern journalism student into three, which has been hectic at times to say the least. It's my understanding that dual-credit options are becoming more popular in high schools. I'd guess some community college transfer students face some of the same difficulties. It can be difficult, but if you're in a similar situation, I'd encourage you to keep working because it is possible as long as you're willing to put forth the effort.
If you would like to follow-up with Amy personally, click here.