Intro: If you have a weird fascination with decision-makers and people who do wonderful, terrible or idiotic things, read on!
The Story: The field of journalism gives you the opportunity to explore all these fascinations and more—working nights and weekends, a typical starting salary in the 20s, and a need to use all the resourcefulness you have learned in college and life.
I have worked as a newspaper journalist in small communities since 1977, the year I graduated with a B.A. from Central Michigan University. One of my professors, who had not known of any totally blind people employed in the field, told me I might end up relegated to a spot on the rewrite desk. I am happy to say that did not happen—probably because most small newspapers are too busy to worry about having a rewrite desk.
A blind person who wants to get into this field should, first of all, have excellent note-taking and keyboarding skills. For a totally blind person, that means braille is essential. Good communication skills and a calm, relaxed demeanor help interviewees feel comfortable, not like they are on the spot, when you decide to collar them and ask questions. It is also good to be a little spontaneous; in other words, you need to be able to change gears in a matter of seconds. If some famous citizen in your town dies an hour before deadline, the story absolutely must be filed in an hour—and your article must be fair, accurate and, if possible, the proper length to fit into the day's layout.
A reporter is given a list of responsibilities or coverage areas called a beat. My beat is business but, because I like the offbeat and because we are a small staff here at the Midland Daily News (in Midland, Michigan), I do general-assignment work—which means just about anything.
A typical day might bring me to the office before 8am to help make police calls and edit other people's copy. Hopefully, I wrote my story for today's paper, yesterday. If not, I better hurry and hope no one needs to interrupt me—an unlikely occurrence. For the next two hours, I am working on a deadline—writing, reading, answering phones and jumping up to run into my editor's office because he wants me to recraft the first three paragraphs of my story.
Whew! Once that is accomplished, I participate in a staff meeting to determine who is doing what for tomorrow's paper. After that, I make phone calls for projects I am working on; maybe I will take the bus, a cab, or negotiate a driver's help to go interview someone for a story. I might have to cover a night meeting, which means I might work until 2pm or so, go home, cover my meeting in the evening and write the story about it. It's a good thing I live less than a mile away from the office, because I might have to walk home at 10 or 10:30pm. And, I still have to get up in time to be at work before 8am the next day.
My chief high-tech helpers are a Braille Lite 2000 and OutSpoken, a screen reader for the Macintosh. Yes, we have Macs, and they are tricky for blind users, although sighted users love their graphics.
Journalists generally work on many projects at once and do a lot of planning for them. Visual art is important and, although we cannot see it, blind journalists still need to take responsibility for assigning pictures and making sure the creative services people produce our graphical data in an appealing, readable format.
As a blind person, the hardest part of late has been learning nonvisual paths to the things I need on the computer. There are not a lot of people who understand how to help me at work, because they are not familiar with the Windows environment—publishing occurs in a Mac world and there are few people-friendly options for blind Mac users. Our technician has had to create instructions for me to point and click my way to databases and archives. (OutSpoken, which I use in the Mac environment, requires much, much more pointing and clicking than Windows software such as JAWS, which I use at home.) I also have to use a different e-mail program than the newspaper's sighted users, because their system has become so graphical and our technician has not figured out how to set up audible cues for all of the functions. For instance, how can I click on a graphic which is only a line and has no word for a screen reader to speak?
I do not have a scanner at work, but I do have a Windows-based one at home. It has been most valuable to me, because I read press releases and other material and usually e-mail them back to myself at work.
By far the best thing about my job is the people, including a management team that helps me to succeed and gives me good positive and negative feedback. I also enjoy the challenge of creating pictures with tiny brush strokes of words to create the right nuances and meaning. I like to build in visual details by asking my interview subjects about their environments, for example, what are the meaningful furnishings in their office or home? I want to touch these objects, learn how a dancer makes her picturesque moves or how a weaver blends fibers on a canvas. I try to get inside each person's head and get each individual fired up to talk about the special thing in his or her own life.
I would advise any blind applicant for a journalism job to be up-front and honest with management, explain the equipment and resources he or she plans to use and talk candidly about the kind of help that may be needed. An internship or two, and some job shadowing experiences, are a must.
Self-reliance will be important. Sometimes, the photographer for your story might be willing to give you a ride, but most of the time, you will want to be at the scene to talk to people at a different time than the photographer, who may want to watch them unnoticed. Line up a few people (retirees are very good) who can drive you somewhere in a pinch, and someone who can come by periodically and read the really hard material—graphical reports, magazines, blurry news copy, and so forth.
Our staff librarian has proven most valuable as a reader and fact looker-upper for me. A co-worker in the circulation department drives around town a good deal and sometimes, when he is ready to go somewhere, he will volunteer to drop me off along the way.
Journalism is a taxing, challenging job that could very well become the biggest and best adventure you will ever encounter.
The Contact: Cheryl Wade.