Most journalism undergrads have heard the phrase “trial by fire.” It’s referenced as a foregone conclusion from that first communications class.
So how do new journalists ensure that that they are tempered by that fire, rather than incinerated?
And who better to ask than a young reporter just a few months into her first local TV news job?
Morgan Burger is a reporter with WTVA in Tupelo, Mississippi—market 136. “I’m three months in. I’ve learned a lot,” Burger says. “I’m tired. I’ve been tired for three months, but I love it.
“I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 6 years old. I used to write little stories and stand in front of the TV and pretend and hold a coffee mug. It was something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Burger says.
But when she graduated from the University of Mississippi in December 2015, she turned down a job offer at a small station. With student loan payments looming, she says, the low-paying reporter salary scared her.
“I moved back to Texas, which is where I’m from, and took a great job, a high-paying job working in sales for a beer company,” Burger says. “I had a management role and I made great money—and I was so miserable. I followed my paycheck, and did (it) for about five months and realized I don’t love this. This is not what my passion is. It’s going to be very hard to do this for the rest of my life if I don’t love it.”
Burger says she stuck it out for a year and a day. “I left that job and started contacting any of my contacts in journalism. I was very fortunate to intern at quite a few stations in college so I just started reaching out and thought I don’t care what I make.”
Burger had interned at WTVA and soon had a job. “You have to start somewhere,” Burger says, “and this is the perfect place for me to start. The perfect place for me to mess up.”
In fact, Burger soon discovered that messing up is often when you learn the most. She learned a hard lesson during her first attempt at going live. “I was so pumped. I had this great live shot set up and I was going to lead the show,” Burger says.
The station had been promoting her severe weather live shot heavily. “I had this huge uprooted tree behind me, and I try to turn on the backpack and it was like, ‘Why is it not turning on?’ ” Burger says. “I forgot the batteries to the live backpack.”
She dreaded calling her boss to admit her mistake and was braced for the worst. “Everything inside of me just … I was like, I’m such a failure. I’m going to lose my job. I was mortified.”
Luckily her news director took a calmer approach. “I got back and he pulled me into his office and said, ‘It’s OK. I guarantee you’ll never forget batteries again.’ And I’ll tell you this, I’ve never forgotten the batteries since then.”
Like most people in smaller markets, Burger says, she’s a one-man band. “I do it all. I shoot it. I write it. I edit it. I produce it. Which I think is great because it makes you more valuable later on.” Add to that Twitter, Facebook, web articles and clipping video. “It takes an extra few hours,” Burger says. “So yeah, I could be there 12 hours, go home, get up and do it all over again.”
But Burger says she would not trade it for the world. Far from feeling fried by that fire, she’s basking in its glow.
Deborah Caro Goldman has worked as a writer-producer at WTTG in Washington, D.C., and as a news producer at WSOC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at WTEN in Albany, New York. She was an anchor, reporter and producer at WAGM in Presque Isle, Maine. A 1990 graduate of Syracuse University, she has degrees in policy studies and broadcast journalism and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She has a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism, finishing her program in Washington, D.C., as a correspondent for WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Four pieces of advice for rookie reporters
WTVA reporter Morgan Burger offers tour tips for getting through that first job:
- Always have your lunch packed. There’s no lunch break. There’s no break room. You don’t have time. You’re just going, going, going.
- Always have three pairs of shoes for the three F’s — fires, floods and funerals. A veteran journalist at one of her college internships told her that having one of each covers every event. A small “Go” bag helps, too.
- Don’t be afraid of the silent moments, especially when interviewing. Some of the best quotes come during that quiet time. People feel like they need to fill the silence, and sometimes they say something that becomes the hook.
- Brace for long hours. “It’s not an 8 to 5 job. It’s important to realize that,” Burger says. “You’ll go in and have your meeting where you pitch your stories and then you’re off. It’s like they shoot the cannon off and you better go. There’s no sitting around.”