A Taste of Journalism: Internship Experience at Taiwan News
何雪菁 Translation Track
This summer, I became an intern reporter for Taiwan News, covering topics on education and arts and culture. It was a thought-provoking experience to go from the consuming end to the producing end of news content. Here are the three most important lessons I learned along the way.
Lesson One: Newsworthiness Has a Complicated Answer
As a novice reporter, the first question I faced was “what should I write about?” In other words, how do I decide what is newsworthy, and what not? In our age of information overflow, how do I write something that isn’t just sounds and noises, but worth the readers’ time?
I set out with this question in mind and discovered a twofold answer. Unsurprisingly, this so-called “newsworthiness” partly depends on the readers’ interests. (After all, most news agencies still rely on advertisements.) The other part of the answer, however, lies just as much within me as a reporter and my judgment. In fact, the decision seems to be a balance between market concern and reporter judgment.
On the one hand, there are indeed topics and content that more readily attract eyeballs—I was incredulous to learn that my very first, rather unpolished post about the unemployment of college professors, gathered more than 6000 views in one day—and as one of my mentors pointed out bluntly, “It’s not journalism if no one reads it.”
On the other hand, however, a reporter must have their own judgment about what should be exposed and in what way. My supervisor never forgot to ask me about “my” angle on a given assignment, or anything I found worth covering. It turned out that in addition to minding the readers’ interest and expectations, it was also my job to discover and decide what would be worth knowing about, and lay it out in an interesting and significant way.
Toward the end, I found the answer to “what’s worth covering” even more complicated than I initially thought. The dance between “what I (and my agency) assume the readers want to know” and “what I want the readers to know” determine if something becomes news and how pieces of information are choreographed.
Lesson Two: Rethink those Details
Of course, settling on the topic and my angle was only the first step. Once I started to write, I found myself struggling with what materials to include and their level of detail. For instance, when I wrote about the teacher placement test in Taiwan and its recent adjustments, I was questioned by my supervisor about the relevance and coherence of the information I put in. (Do the English readers really need to know the passing scores for different placement tracks? If yes, then how do you present it in a way that fits in with or reasonably challenges the bigger point you’re trying to make?)
With the almighty Internet nowadays, one can easily access heaps of information and data on almost any given topic. The real challenge is to filter for what are relevant and find the meaningful thread to sew them together into a logical and even insightful piece. In fact, I was reminded more than once that “you’re not writing your master’s thesis. You want to be interesting and informative, not exhaustive.” Indeed, I found my piece almost always improved when I treated it critically and eliminated ruthlessly any redundancy in sight. It was a simple exercise: if I couldn’t tell why a certain piece of information was there, chances were it shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Of course, caution must be taken here. Sometimes, the seemingly “irrelevant” information has its significance but can be lost to the untrained eyes. For instance, when I quoted a legislator’s criticism on government policy, it made a difference whether the person was referred to as just “legislator” or “Kuomintang legislator.” To catch these nuances of meaning and context, however, requires not only good command of the language, but sensitivity to the larger context in order to decipher the significance of the said and the unsaid.
Lesson Three: Strong Headline and Change of Word
Throughout the internship, what I found most helpful as a non-native speaker of English, was having experienced editors check the language of my article. Among the many suggestions I received, two most frequent ones concerned the headline and the repetition of word.
I was advised multiple times to revise my headline and lead sentence (i.e. the first sentence) to make them “intriguing.” To illustrate her point, my supervisor pulled up Google search engine and showed me how, for each search result, users only see the main title and the first sentence, which “basically determine whether or not people click on it to read further.”
Even though I had every intention to make the headlines catchy and pertinent, I found it extremely difficult to achieve both at the same time. As I continue to stand in awe for those clever and succinct titles and subtitles on the prestigious newspapers (Think The New York Times and The Atlantic), I know it takes extensive reading and writing to eventually have such wit up my sleeve.
The other piece of advice about repetition warned against using the same phrase over and over in an article. This means that instead of calling the National Taiwan Literature Museum “the museum” every time I refer to it (amounting to about 13 times in one news piece), I could substitute it with “the event organizer” or “the avid supporter of Taiwan literature” depending on the context. This was in line with what we learned in class: English has a lower tolerance for repetition, and the change of expression isn’t only to avoid monotony, but serves as spices and sprinkles.
As the internship lasted short of a month, I know I only scratched the surface of journalism. However, it has made me think deeper about the production of news, the organization of information, and the importance to continue training myself for flexible and creative language.