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'You can't teach curiosity' and other tips about becoming a better journalist from Elaine Povich

Elaine Povich: "Everybody has a story and it's up to you as a professional journalist to find it.”

“It's not a job. It's a life,” veteran journalist Elaine S. Povich told Tsinghua University journalism students participating in a Global Business Journalism Lecture Series event.

And what a life! Journalism has been an exciting and rewarding career for Povich, who has written three acclaimed books and has been chosen by her peers as the best reporter covering the U.S. Congress. In addition to her work as a reporter, Povich teaches journalism at the University of Maryland.

In recent years she has extensively covered the response of American states to the coronavirus pandemic for and has partnered with publications across the United States.

“It's like you're almost always working,” she told students on Dec. 20. “No matter where I am, I'm kind of looking around for the next story. Everybody has a story and it's up to you as a professional journalist to find it.”

Being a journalist can make you get to go to places you've never been before – and if you go with an open mind you can learn a lot. Povich said she learned that lesson from her own experience of a 22-year-old Northern girl who faced culture shock when she began her professional journalism career in the Deep South state of Mississippi.

Povich said that an insatiable sense of curiosity is one of the most essential traits for journalists. Many practical skills, like putting sentences together, can be taught, she said, but curiosity cannot be taught. And if journalists are not curious about the world, they can never be good journalists, she added. A good journalist must learn about things that they didn't know existed beforehand.

"You can't teach curiosity," Povich told the students.

In addition to curiosity, people skills are important for reporters. Another vital trait is the ability to work under pressure because journalists sometimes need to "do the impossible" to meet deadlines, she noted.

The journalism industry is undergoing major changes, Povich said, and many traditional news outlets are reducing staff size. One growth area, however, is business reporting. Povich encouraged aspiring journalists to take advantage of available job opportunities. But she told them not to be intimidated by all the numbers they encounter in their economic reporting.

“Numbers are just numbers,” she said.

Povich shared the best advice she ever received about reporting on budgets: Budgets are not about math but about politics. Money tells the story and that's what business reporters have to remember where entities decide to put their money is extremely telling about what they think is important.

Professor Rick Dunham, the host of the lecture, shared eight newsroom problems faced by young journalists, including demanding schedules and low pay. Povich agreed that “he is absolutely right about not doing it for the money.”

The lecture also included tips on reporting, interviewing, structuring stories, and how to put together news stories from idea to publication.

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