To Make it in Journalism, Students Must Develop a Nose for News

Usually, it's a disturbing development when you start hearing voices inside your head. For journalists, the ability to not only hear but also heed such voices is a must.

What am I talking about? Reporters must cultivate what's called a "news sense" or a "nose for news," an instinctive feel for what constitutes a big story. For an experienced reporter, the news sense often manifests itself as a voice screaming inside his head whenever a big story breaks.

"This is important," the voice shouts. "You need to move fast."

I bring this up because developing a feel for what constitutes a big story is something many of my journalism students struggle with. How do I know this? Because I regularly give my students newswriting exercises in which there is typically an element, buried somewhere near the bottom, that makes an otherwise run-of-the-mill story page-one material.

One example: In an exercise about a two-car collision, it's mentioned in passing that the son of the local mayor was killed in the crash. For anyone who's spent more than five minutes in the news business, such a development would set alarm bells ringing.

Yet many of my students seem immune to this compelling angle. They dutifully write up the piece with the death of the mayor's son buried at the bottom of their story, exactly where it was in the original exercise. When I point out later that they've whiffed - big-time - on the story, they often seem mystified.

I have a theory about why so many j-school students today lack a news sense. I believe it's because so few of them follow the news to begin with. Again, this is something I've learned from experience. At the start of every semester I ask my students how many of them read a newspaper or news website everyday.

Typically, only a third of the hands might go up, if that. (My next question is this: Why are you in a journalism class if you aren't interested in the news?)

Given that so few students read the news, I suppose it's not surprising that so few have a nose for news. But such a sense is absolutely critical for anyone hoping to build a career in this business.

Now, you can drill the factors that make something newsworthy into students - impact, loss of life, consequences and so on. Every semester I have my students read the relevant chapter in Melvin Mencher's textbook, then quiz them on it.

But at some point the development of a news sense must go beyond rote learning and be absorbed into a reporter's body and soul. It must be instinctive, part of a journalist's very being.

But that won't happen if a student isn't excited about the news, because a news sense is really all about the adrenaline rush that anyone who's ever covered a big story knows so well. It's the feeling one MUST have if he or she is to be even a good reporter, much less a great one.

In his memoir "Growing Up," former New York Times writer Russell Baker recalls the time he and Scotty Reston, another legendary Times reporter, were leaving the newsroom to head out for lunch.

Upon exiting the building they heard the wail of sirens up the street. Reston by then was already getting on in years, yet upon hearing the noise he was, Baker recalls, like a cub reporter in his teens, racing to the scene to see what was happening.

Baker, on the other hand, realized that the sound didn't stir anything in him. At that moment he understood that his days as a breaking-news reporter were done.

You won't make it as reporter if you don't develop a nose for news, if you don't hear that voice yelling inside your head. And that won't happen if you're not excited about the work itself.