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Jeff Whitten: From an email to an intern
editor's notes

Unless she changes her mind, we’re about to take on a new intern here at the Bryan County News.

While I’ll let her introduce herself in a column in a week or two, I wanted to share excerpts from an email I sent her Tuesday night with paperwork from our HR folks.

I’m sharing it because I think it helped me more than it will her, because writing some things down helped me remember why I decided to get into journalism nearly 30 years ago. Here goes: “Thanks for your interest in journalism. What I hope you’ll find is we don’t put on airs around here, but we do take the job seriously and do care about what we do.

“Attached is what HR sent me for you to fill out, or sign.

“Of all the paperwork, to me confidentiality is most important. What you see or read in a newsroom stays there until/unless it’s reported. We aren’t some Facebook pretender. Remember the people we cover are people. Treat them like you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. We don’t sweep things under rugs, but we also practice the idea of ‘limitation of harm.’ Look that up sometime – ‘limitation of harm in journalism.’ This is partly so we don’t get shot for no good reason, but it’s mostly because it’s the right thing to do..”

Toward the end of the email, the below, and yep, I buried my lede: “Remember the five w’s. Learn what an inverted pyramid is. Learn the difference between public figures, public officials and private citizens.

“Never use two words when one will do. Don’t use the word ‘that’ if you don’t need it. Example, ‘He said that the dog went into the neighbor’s yard.’ It works just as well to write, ‘He said the dog went into the neighbor’s yard.’ “And, straight news stories are about the subject of the story, not the writer. Don’t editorialize in ledes or anywhere else. Learn the difference between straight news (aka ‘hard news), opinion, feature writing and so on.

“And always remember there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. I can help you learn some of them, but I do not pretend to be God’s gift to journalism.” Etc.

Jeff Whitten ....

Hopefully, I did not come across as a big shot or a know it all, i.e., a TV news guy who wears suits and makeup.

As my wife will tell you, I am none of the above. And truth is, no one is more aware of my shortcomings than me. I suspect I’m stuck with them at this point.

But I’m still idealist enough to be heartened knowing there is a kid or two out there who thinks newspapers are important, and cares enough about becoming a journalist to get started at a small weekly like this one.

And you never know, this young lady may go on to the Washington Post or New York Times, and help them get better at what they do. They need all the help they can get, I think.

Especially since many of those of us in the business at this level are getting old and forgetful, and ever more outnumbered as we wander around trying to find relevance at a time when we have a world of information at our fingertips but seem not to know what exactly to make of it.

Yes, folks on social media dismiss little papers like ours as “rags,” or so I’m told, but consider the sources and realize many people don’t bother to read anything longer than a Tweet anymore. What’s more, too many folks these days don’t believe anything they don’t agree with, so if you write something they don’t like you’re the enemy. Fake news.

I’ll hush, and leave with this.

In a world with all of the above and a country where self-proclaimed journalists think nothing of ruining other people on social media to make a buck, and the difference between news and opinion and truth and alternate truth is blurred time and again, maybe there’ll still be space for little papers like ours. Imperfect places, sure, but places where kids can come to start to figure out if this is what they want to do, and be.

Whitten is BCN editor.

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