Fremont news editor offers 10 tips for future journalists
By Madison Bell
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
“Don’t assume anything,” Tammy McKeighan suggested when asked about her editing advice. “Don’t assume you even know how to spell your mother’s name.”
Sometimes editing can seem harsh and nitpicky. Even McKeighan wasn’t sure she wanted to be an editor at first. After she graduated from Midland Lutheran College, McKeighan became a regional and lifestyles reporter at the Fremont Tribune. Then, in 1993, there was an opening for a news editor position that she decided to take. She’s been an editor there ever since.
“I’ve thought about working at other newspapers and even applied to one in St. Cloud, Minn., but I’ve been satisfied with the Fremont Tribune,” McKeighan said. “Most of what I do now is writing, which I love.”
And she has done a lot of writing.
After being with the Fremont Tribune for 31 years, McKeighan knows the ups and downs of working her job at a small newspaper. “There isn’t really a typical day with my job,” McKeighan said in a phone interview. “My schedule depends on if I’m doing my own work, or filling in for someone else.”
Some days of the week, however, provide her with normalcy.
On those days, McKeighan arrives at the Tribune at 5:30 a.m. to get the budget ready. After that, she reads stories, pulls off weather information and proofs pages. Then she starts the process over by thinking about the photos and stories needed for the following day.
Even with all of her responsibilities, she still finds time to accomplish personal goals.
McKeighan has a website with a blog for her book “Real Spiritual Spinach – Faith for the Journey.” It’s a compilation of her faith-based columns that came out in 2009. McKeighan self-published, marketed and sold the book. She is hoping to self-publish another book in the future, even with the work it entails. She wanted to start right away but felt she was limited by time and resources: two of her biggest challenges as an editor. “Newspaper staffs tend to be smaller, but the news continues,” McKeighan said. “I’ve worked long, long days during my career.”
Not having enough time for everything can cause other problems. It can be frustrating for her, for example, when people expect the newspaper to automatically cover their event no matter what time of the day, night or weekend. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether or not the newspaper is short-staffed or it’s a holiday. “It also can be trying when people call and want you to cover something a very short time before the event,” McKeighan said.
Despite those challenges, however, McKeighan has had many good experiences with her job. Her advice: Always have a good attitude.
“I love the fact that I really can make a difference,” McKeighan said. She has written several stories about people with life-threatening illnesses, facing huge medical expenses, who’ve had great turnouts at fundraisers. “It’s nice when they believe the article I wrote helped draw people to those events.”
McKeighan shared two specific occasions that changed her life as an editor.
One occurred when she wrote a story about a veteran who was awarded a medal years after the war. The man was in the hospital, dying of cancer, so she took him a copy of the story. His wife held up the newspaper that featured a photograph of him from his younger days. The wife smiled and asked who the handsome guy in the photo was. He hugged the newspaper to his chest. He lived only a few more days. It amazed McKeighan to think she had taken a story to such a grateful man on his death bed.
Another time, she wrote a story about a young girl with an unusual illness. The Associated Press picked up the story, and a man in Denver read it. He then sent the girl and her family to Disneyland, and the girl brought McKeighan back a Minnie Mouse magnet.
It’s vital to McKeighan to make sure every individual story is important, even if she’s not personally invested in it. “Put yourself in the readers’ shoes,” McKeighan said.
Along with her experiences, she offered the following advice:
1. “If you want to write for a newspaper, read different newspapers.”
2. “Double-check everything. Don’t be afraid to call back sources and double-check facts.”
3. “Learn Associated Press style.”
4. “Keep abreast of current events.”
5. “Have a good attitude. You can be a good reporter, writer and editor without being cynical.”
6. “Be willing to write different types of stories. Remember, there are no boring stories, only boring reporters.”
7. “Make a list of questions before your interview. Start with the easy questions first. Only when you’ve established a rapport can you ask the tougher questions.”
8. “Try to understand the reader. Maybe you’re not personally interested in the daffodil festival, but others probably are. So if you were planning to attend, what would you want to know?”
9. “Never stop learning. Go to writing and editing conferences. Do what you can to improve your skills.”
10. “As an editor, you must realize that you are a leader. You must have integrity and set an example. I personally enjoy reading John C. Maxwell’s books on leadership. His ’21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,’ ’17 Indispensable Laws of Teamwork’ and ‘Failing Forward’ are three of my favorites. Anyone who manages people should read these.”