Charles Xu ’21

The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, MA

During my first week as a reporter for the Berkshire Eagle, I remember driving around the county reviewing ice cream shops and thinking to myself, “So this is what a journalist does?”

Obviously, over the course of the summer, I’ve realized the answer to that question is a little more complex (and a little less sugar-laden). But nonetheless, my experience at the Eagle has given me a glimpse of not only the responsibility and lifestyle of a local journalist, but also the challenges and questions they face on the job. And most importantly, I’ve discovered that reporting, which was once just a side hobby of mine, could actually become a career path.

Yours truly, working on a podcast
Yours truly, working on a podcast

When I first stepped into the newsroom, I was a little overwhelmed. Reporters were typing frantically to meet a deadline. Paginators were busy laying out tomorrow’s paper. Editors were combing through the latest stories. It felt like a well-oiled machine—a machine that I couldn’t possibly imagine inserting myself into. But as I met my supervisor and colleagues, I realized many of them started just as I had. An article here. A story there. A few of them even came up to me and started giving me advice on how to get started. And once I began seeing my name on the bylines, I gradually became more comfortable pitching my own stories and visiting reporters’ desks to talk through ideas.

During my ten weeks, I wrote close to 20 stories for the features and arts section, traveling the county to speak to artists, performers and shop owners. One of my first feature stories was a profile on a new ice cream shop. At the start of the interview, I kept looking at my notes reminding me to ask the owner what type of flavors she sold and where the ice cream was made. But as we started talking, I learned that her family also owned the café next door and she was, in fact, part of six generations native to Pittsfield. Slowly, I began to uncover the layers to her background and how it informed her decision to open an ice cream parlor. From that interaction, I learned to center my writing on the people, not the art or the product. After all, journalism, at its heart, is about giving a voice to people and to tell their stories accurately and ethically.

Oftentimes, the stories I wrote ended up informing me the most about my own ideas and biases. While writing about local reactions to President Trump’s tweets about four democratic congresswomen, I encountered a range of political views around North County which brought me outside of the Purple Bubble of Williams. I talked to Trump supporters and Trump opposers, learning about their backgrounds and the stories behind their political stances. I began to comprehend the divisiveness of politics in this era, and the frustrations from both political parties. And most importantly, I understood that every assignment and every interview begins with empathy and understanding from the reporter.

This summer, I also dabbled in the audio side of journalism. After a conversation with an Eagle reporter encouraging me to pitch my ideas to the newsroom, I started a news podcast. Each week, I would host and produce 20 minutes conversations with reporters on the most relevant news in the Berkshires. From major challenges, such as audio issues that kept me editing up until 3 a.m. some weeks, to minor inconveniences, like spending hours finding free-use music, I’ve grown to appreciate the details and the complexities of even the simplest tasks. In other words, I’m finally starting to get how the “well-oiled machine” I mentioned earlier functions in all its aspects and where I might fit in in the future.

Finally, while the staff at the Eagle have allowed me to feel supported and comfortable in the newsroom, I realize the real learning takes place outside of the office. No amount of time spent reading about journalism can replace the awkward silences during interviews or the hesitancy in chasing down a local for a quote. There is no way to prepare for the news from your editor that you’ve misreported a car accident or misidentified someone’s pronouns. All you can do is apologize and make sure you don’t repeat that mistake again. Learning is uncomfortable, and looking back, I’m grateful that my editors allowed me to take on stories I’d never done before.

Covering a sculpture show in the forest of Chesterwood, the studio of Daniel Chester French
Covering a sculpture show in the forest of Chesterwood, the studio of Daniel Chester French.

One of my goals this summer was to try everything and not only learn about how a reporter works but also how the entire newspaper process functions and where I can fit myself in the puzzle. The staff at the Eagle have been immensely supportive of all the ideas I’ve pitched and offered invaluable advice along the way. After a summer of features writing and podcasting, I’ve gotten a better sense of my strengths and weaknesses as a reporter as well as what topics I want to focus on.

Additionally, the Eagle has made me more aware of the role and importance of local journalism. At the start of my internship, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe featured the Berkshire Eagle as one of the few local papers experiencing a resurgence. While it’s great to have publicity, this attention only underscores the idea that journalism is dying. Without local reporting, public figures and businesses will have no measure of accountability or sense of the population’s opinions. In other words, democracy fails without a healthy press. Thankfully, my time at the Eagle has taught me some of the solutions that can save local newspapers: a commitment to quality journalism and content tailored to the audience. As I continue my career in reporting, I plan to not only think about my own reporting but also ways to make sure journalism is a sustainable, public-spirited industry.

I walk away from the Eagle’s newsroom this summer feeling extremely grateful to have worked with a staff committed to the highest journalistic ethics and values. Their enthusiasm and work ethic has rubbed off on me this summer, and I’m sure that when I look back, I’ll be very grateful that my journalistic career began on South Church Street.

For now, I will strive to continue improving my skills as a reporter while keeping in mind the responsibility and duty this field has to the people. None of this experience and learning would have been possible without the support of the Berkshire Eagle, the guidance of the ’68 Center for Career Exploration, and most importantly, the generosity of the alums who sponsored me. You gave a chance to a college student who happened to be interested in newspapers, and I will never forget that.