Words of advice for journalists

Jay Dickerson

Nov 1, 2021

The experience you get in a small-town, community newspaper setting has staying power.

I was delighted when my 17-year-old daughter shared with me that she’d be working on the local high school’s newspaper. She had interned at our office over the summer. Maybe there were some tips she could bring to the school and help that paper’s efficiency. She might even bring some tips back to our organization.

I’m looking forward to holding a copy in my hands!

My daughter already has the experience of working on a publication. She wrote the lion’s share of stories in our newspaper’s twice-a-year community guide. She interviewed several subjects, wrote features and designed the layouts on her own. The school newspaper should be old hat for her.

Still, I hope she feels the same anticipation I feel, as pages get PDFd and last-minute calls are made to the printer. Holding the fruits of your work can be inspiring. Here are some words of advice for journalists just getting their start.


I worked with a number of excellent interns at The Galena Gazette over the years. A couple of interns we even ended up hiring on a full-time basis. The top interns had a few things in common:

They were professional. I remember when we were hiring an intern and we had one applicant. She showed up to the interview in a T-shirt and talked about how she was very interested in writing fiction. She also mispronounced “Nikon.” We didn’t hire her as sometimes you’re better off just waiting awhile until you find the right candidate. We waited a bit longer and ultimately did hire someone: he showed up to the interview in a long-sleeved dress shirt and tie, and he asked if his tattoos would be an issue. (One of his arms was sleeved with ink, and he was up front about it.) He ended up being one of the best hires we had, representing our business well in the community. He eventually went back to school and became a nurse.

They took feedback well. The ability to take criticism — whether fair or not! — is a good skill to have in the real world. This translates to most fields. The better you can take criticism and do something meaningful with it to improve, the better off you’ll be.

They were willing to build relationships. Remember, journalism is a field built on strong relationships. You need to be able to call the sheriff’s cellphone at 10 p.m. on Sunday night to find out why all those squad cars have their lights on and sirens blazing at that hotel’s parking lot. You need to sit with the county administrator and get lengthy answers to your questions about the preliminary budget. You need to approach the little old lady with the prize-winning recipe with the same respect as you would approach a controversial court case.

They were good human beings. Many people who work at the Gazette end up contributing to the community’s well-being. The fellow we hired two years ago as a reporter is now the president of the Kiwanis Club of Galena. Be someone who’s willing to join such an organization. This pays dividends in the long run.


Bob Watson is the owner, editor and publisher of The Carroll County Mirror-Democrat and The Savanna Times-Journal. He notes that, in his 50-year career of largely weekly newspapers, “I do remember being encouraged by former college J professors, IPA representatives and fellow newspaper people to pursue and continue my life-long goal to be a small-town weekly newspaper editor-publisher-owner rather than pursuing a career with big-city dailies.”

Small town newspapers, after all, are the voices of their communities. The experience you get in a small-town, community newspaper setting has staying power. People cut the stories out of the print edition and sometimes hold onto the entire issue as a keepsake for years. A weekly newspaper resonates with people in meaningful ways.

Roger Ruthhart is the retired editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, as well as QC Online. “As a young reporter, I was assigned to interview family of a young child who had been killed. I dreaded making the call for the interview. But when I spoke with the mom, she was so happy I had called. ‘We want people to know our child’s story but are dreading having to repeat it 100 times,’ Ruthhart recalled her saying. ‘We can tell it to you just once, and everyone can read it.’

“And if sources don’t want to talk, leave a business card or name/number or call back later. Often after time passes, people do want to talk and might have an amazing story to tell.”


We tell the stories that no one else is telling. We talk to the people who can sometimes be overlooked. What we do as journalists has meaning.

I hope the next generation of journalists at Galena High School appreciates this. And while I know this is only the school paper, I hope my daughter knows how proud I am of her.

Jay Dickerson is the advertising manager at The Galena (Illinois) Gazette. He also enjoys watching one reader in particular grab the latest issue the day it comes out, and read it, cover to cover, as her car idles in the parking lot. jdickerson@galgazette.com