Pens and Persistence
I shuffled into the Daily News office on a clear morning in January, fueled by a meek breakfast and nervous energy, to interview for a job as an obituary writer. In my mind, advice from family and friends scattered into incomprehensible bits and pieces.
Smile! Be passionate! Show your personality! Sit up straight! Eye contact! Brag about yourself, but in a good way!
An interview for a job as an obit writer should have been pretty straightforward. I knew that if I got the gig, I would pen obituaries and sometimes a news brief, a paragraph or two of information about some community event or another.
I was a 16-year-old girl with absolutely no journalism experience.
The advertisement stated that the minimum qualification was a high school diploma. And, unusually, I had graduated high school with a 3.9 GPA, just a month before my interview. I had also just finished up a semester of college at the top of my class.
Eventually I was beckoned by the publisher- a woman with greying hair wearing a vest and sneakers - through what I thought was a labyrinth of plain-walled halls to begin the interview. I didn’t know that I would come to know these walls like those of my own home.
I had a 20 minute interview with both the publisher and the editor of the paper, a man with gold-rimmed glasses and a small smile. I left the interview and couldn’t even remember what I had said.
The next morning, I was informed that I was hired. I would start the next day. Me, a teenage girl whose only credentials included a few good essays - would be working at a newspaper. A daily publication. In short, it was my dream.
Truthfully, the first few weeks of work at the Daily were difficult, to say the least. Looking back, much has changed. I abhorred the newsroom for my first few months. It was just a bull pen: a long narrow room with little adorning the walls and rows of ancient desks. It was both loud with the whirring of the paper press downstairs and completely void of conversation. I hated that my computer and my writing were just splayed out for anyone to see - for the other, more qualified, writers to scoff at.
I carried a secret kind of guilt about my inexperience and my age for nearly a month. Nobody had asked me during my interview how old I was. My diploma was evidence that I had graduated, and I was later informed that it was assumed I was at least 19-years-old.
Soon, my tax forms were filed, revealing my birthdate. Clearly, I was not 19.
The word spread slowly and made me even more uncomfortable in the newsroom.
Until I saw my first by-line. Behind the editor’s desk stands an easel with each section of the newspaper flayed out and displayed for anyone to examine. It was in mid-February that my name made it onto that board, because I had written a simple review of a children’s book.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me that I was a 16-year-old girl in a newsroom full of experienced, 20-something guys. I was the measly obituary writer, but not for long.
I started drumming up more ideas, approaching the editor with laminated lists of story possibilities. Soon, I picked up a temporary beat - new businesses. In my town, it was a big deal.
My first few drafts were a complete flop. But by the summer, I was writing front page stories. By the fall, I was given my very own beat, a regular job that came with a title - “entertainment reporter.” Every weekend, a huge spread was written about an art event that was happening in town. It was called “The Scene,” and it was a big job. Now, it was my job.
I eagerly took it.I was gathering speed, motion, experience. Slowly, it didn’t bother me that I was the only girl in the newsroom, the only person under age 18. The only one who hadn’t gone to college or worked in a news environment before.
I stopped feeling like a liar, a cheat, a fraud. I started to feel pretty proud of myself. I had clawed my way from obit writer to the position of “arts and entertainment reporter,” based solely on my writing. Each compliment that was layered on me I wore like a coat of armor, wrapping my small inklings of unconfidence in the praise.
The editor told me that I had a bright future in print journalism, that I had a remarkable ability to write clearly, that my writing was some of the best he had read. I was told that the number of stories I churned out was impressive, that I was a quick study, that I was suprisingly well-spoken, intelligent and confident.
I found myself determined to live up to this praise.
When I went home, sometimes I couldn’t make myself focus on anything except what was waiting for me on my desk. The thought of the next interview, the next story, the next by-line, consumed me entirely.
In the end it wasn’t this lavish praise that made me fall in love with the dusty, chemical-smelling newsroom. It was that I stopped thinking of myself as a little girl. I started to imagine myself as a real reporter. Even when people I interviewed or helped in the newsroom gave me funny looks, asked if I was an intern or if I was doing a study for a school class, I took it as a compliment. It was fun to be a ringer, of sorts, as a fellow writer once described me.
I started to look the other reporters in the eye, remembered their names and their beats. The turn-around in my attitude didn’t go unnoticed, and to this day I remember that the other, older writers cheered me on, even if I didn’t realize it until later.
I had changed in my short time there.
My favorite memory is that I was devastated if I had to answer the office phone, my voice wavering and squeaky. Shamefully, I let it ring and another writer always picked it up. When I finally one day launched myself at the phone, answering clearly, the writer behind me clapped, whooped, and said, “Atta girl!”
My shining moment was when a big story I had written on the progress of a local, state-funded construction project was picked up by the Associated Press. I got texts from not only the editor, but the staff photographer and the other writers, congratulating me. I watched all day as my name appeared in the U.S. News and Report, The Seattle Times, multiple Canadian newspapers, travel magazines and other bigger newspapers.
By the time I had worked nearly a year at the Daily, I felt less like a stringy teen girl and more like a valuable reporter. My assignments got bigger and my workload expanded. And even though I still hide little niggling feelings of inadequacy in the worst times, I have grown to appreciate the way I clawed to the place I am now.
About the author: Raegan Miller is a 17-year-old arts and education reporter for a daily newspaper in a Southeast Alaska town called Ketchikan, nestled on Revillagigedo Island. Homeschooled since the third grade, Raegan graduated high school two years early and with honors with the class of 2018. In her first year working as a reporter, Raegan has tackled a wide variety of beats: her journalistic exploits first led her to become a small business writer, often tasked with interviewing start-up companies or multi-branch agencies. She then expanded to cover arts and culture, as well as community events, which is how she earned recognition from the Associated Press in July, 2019, for an article about a state road repair project (the story ran in multiple Canadian newspapers, the U.S. News and World Report, The Seattle Times and a plethora of travel magazines). Now, Raegan serves as a book review columnist, arts/culture writer, all-level education reporter, and continues to delve into covering state-level news.