This week’s stop along the Filak Furlough Tour was an actual stop, meaning Amy and I packed up the truck and drove to Warrensburg, Missouri to visit the University of Central Missouri. Julie Lewis is the adviser of The Muleskinner, the student newspaper down there, and arranged for me to meet with her kids.
Initially, it was going to be a “get-to-know-ya” session where I did some newspaper critiquing and hung out in the newsroom. Then, she mentioned something about talking to high school kids and advisers, which was fine.
Then, I got this promo piece she was sending around to drum up attention for the event:
Great… No pressure… In any case, welcome to the next stop on the tour:
University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, MO
THE TOPIC: Given the current state of journalism, what does it take to be good at this job?
THE BASICS: I know we’re all taking a beating these days in the field of journalism, and I’m sure many students have family members wondering why the heck they’re going into this field in the first place. I believe in the future of journalism in the same way I believe in the future of pretty much anything: If it’s done well, provides a valuable service and connects with people who need it, things will be fine.
To help the students and advisers get a better handle on what I meant by that, here are four things I talked about that I thought could help journalists thrive in today’s media ecosystem:
Know Your Audience: One of the biggest things that we have seen over the past ten or fifteen years is a shift in how journalists need to conceive of their craft. Back when I was in school, we learned the 5Ws and the 1H, a handful of newsvalues and were told, “Get this into your story and everything will work out fine.”
The approach we took was one of “I, as journalist, want to tell you, the fawning mass of readers, what you need to hear from me.” That worked out pretty well for a long time, when we had one or two newspapers that served a certain area and three or four TV stations that did the same. If you’re the only game in town, you can set the rules as you see fit and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Today, we have more choices than ever before when it comes to what we get from myriad media outlets. The sheer volume of content we get on a minute by minute basis could stun a team of oxen in its tracks. People can pick and choose as they see fit, and we need to acknowledge that and adapt to it.
To that end, it’s more important than ever to know who is out there, what they need to know and how we can best give it to them. It isn’t about “I want to tell you something” anymore, but rather, “What do you want to know and how can I get it to you in a way that you’ll understand it?”
Spend time getting to know the people who you want to reach and you’ll do much better at reaching them.
Be Nosy: A lot of journalist bandy about the concepts of “deep dive stories” or “critical thinking paradigms” which all sound really serious and important. At the heart of these things, however, is a simple concept: Be nosy.
A teacher once asked me if I could teach her kids to be nosy, which I said I wasn’t sure about. After all, you’re either the kind of person that noses around in stuff or you’re not. And once you have that nosy gene, it’s really hard to shut it off. As a reporter, I learned how to read things on people’s desks upside down so I could get news scoops. Today, my boss is constantly covering things up on his desk when I show up in his office, because I still do that.
What I can say is that we all start off in life with a sense of wonder. If you think about it, what’s a 4-year-old’s favorite question? WHY! They are constantly trying to figure out why something is the way it is, how something works, what someone is doing and why they’re doing it.
Yes, this can get annoying after a while and you probably want to give the kid a fork and tell them to go play with the toaster, but that instinct they have is one of just pure nosiness.
Somewhere along the way, we lose that sense of wonder. Maybe it’s when we’re in middle school and teachers get exasperated with us. Maybe it’s in high school when it’s no longer cool to ask questions in class. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the way to get back to great journalism that is fun, valuable and engaging is to find that sense of wonder again. We have to find joy and passion in the idea of trying to learn something because we are just so darned curious. Once we learn that thing, we can’t wait to share it with everyone else around us. That can lead to a great number of fantastic stories.
Become a Non-Denominational Skeptic: This is a simple idea that has become much harder to do these days because everyone seems ready to jump all over you if you are perceived to be on the “wrong side” of an issue.
The goal of journalism is to report and reporting requires that we dig into a situation and we ask a lot of questions, many of which may seem rude or problematic to people who don’t like the questions we ask. I can’t tell you the number of times someone took offense to a question I asked, calling me a vulture or a scumbag or other things I won’t repeat here. I even remember someone once telling me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right if you think this is appropriate.”
Granted, sometimes I wasn’t exactly the most skilled interviewer and I tended to cover a lot of crime and such, so there wasn’t always a good way to ask a particular question. That said, in most cases, people were taking umbrage at the idea that I wasn’t just taking their word at face value.
Being a non-denominational skeptic means doing exactly that, regardless of the source or the topic. It could be your best friend or your worst enemy. It could be a topic you totally support or it could be a topic that you would spend a lifetime opposing voraciously.
It doesn’t matter. Either way, you should be skeptical until you are given enough context, sourcing or support to make you believe the information at hand.
This isn’t always easy and it isn’t always fun, but it’s what we signed up for as journalists.
Be Brave: It is so easy these days to be afraid of so many things. Thanks to social media and arm chair warriors, any single thing we do can be dissected, analyzed, criticized and more. We are constantly at a heightened tension that a mistake, a joke, a misunderstanding or more could lead to a firestorm of controversy and irreparably harm us.
It’s a scary time to be in the public eye, particularly if we’re digging around on something that someone doesn’t want us digging around on.
It’s easy to be brave when there’s nothing to fear. It’s easy to write stories when they bandwagon on trendy topics or that hammer on people, places or things that are extremely unpopular. What’s harder is doing the right thing, regardless of the odds or the enemy.
I go back to this story that Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler once told about his decision to integrate baseball, despite having owners voting 15-1 not to. He said, “I’m going to have to meet my maker some day and if he asks me why I didn’t let (Jackie Robinson) play, and I say because he’s black, well, I don’t think that’ll be a satisfactory answer.” Chandler was not a perfect man by any means, but when it came time to put up or shut up, he was brave.
If each of us can do just a little bit of that, I think journalism will be just fine.
BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY (PART I): Has there ever been a time where you struggled to maintain journalistic objectivity? And, if so, how did you go about handling that story?/ How do you, as a journalist, stay unbiased on hot topics that you may a strong opinion towards?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME (PART I): I try to practice what I preach in terms of being a non-denominational skeptic when it comes to interviewing people or listening to what they have to say about a topic. I tend not to think of my approach like a light switch, where I’m either on or off, either for or against something.
Instead, I like to think of it like a door. It can be wide open or totally closed, but it can also be partially open to a variety of degrees. To that end, I like to think that I’m giving people at least a chance to convince me of something before I totally slam the door on them.
Granted, there are times where it’s easier to keep the door really open, like when two equally qualified candidates are running for political office. I’ll keep that door open on both of their thought processes, regardless of how I personally feel about their positions on taxes, land use or how Diet Pepsi doesn’t taste like melted tin and cat urine. Keeping that door open allows me to show both people to my readers effectively.
It’s a lot harder, and thus a lot more narrow of an opening if I’m talking to a white supremacist leader, for example. That door is pretty much closed, but I have to at least keep it open to some degree.
The door is open in regard to things like free speech: As long as you’re not inciting imminent lawless action, you can publicly say whatever you want as part of a protest on a city street corner, so if we’re talking about that, the door needs to stay open because that’s an important truism.
That said, I’ve had to listen to some pretty vile stuff over the years due to these folks making the news and me having to interview them, and I’m not putting up with that crap. So, when he starts veering into “the superiority of the white race….” yeah, that door’s getting slammed pretty damned quick and hard.
Those are obviously the extreme examples, but the point is, you can’t reflexively close a door on a topic just because you don’t like it. If you do, you might miss something important or fail to serve your audience appropriately.
BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY (PART II): What do you feel is the biggest benefit that your books have brought to campuses that other books haven’t?
BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME (PART II): I’m glad someone out there who is actually reading my books thinks there’s some benefit to them, so that was nice to find out. Usually the three questions students ask about my books are:
- How much does this cost?
- Do I actually have to read it to pass this class?
- Can I sell it back at the end of the semester?
If I had to boil down my books to a simple concept, I’d say I try to treat students like they’re actually people, instead of drones who are lucky to be fed the knowledge I have gathered. I have found that tone goes a long way in terms of how much I like what I’m reading.
For example, there is a textbook that is pretty much the only game in town for a specialized area of journalism and I refuse to use it because it just feels so arrogant in its tone. It’s like, “I, the author, am a golden GOD and you are fortunate to be in my presence to garner the knowledge I feel you are capable of receiving, given your limited mental capacity.”
When I started writing the books, I thought back to the people I enjoyed reading. I loved how certain columnists would put me in a place and time by writing like we were just equals, sitting together, having a chat. I loved how authors would weave humor into moments of a book that helped me laugh and helped me remember things. I really loved it when writers would take a complex topic and boil it down to some simple, memorable elements for me, without making me feel inferior for not knowing the stuff to begin with.
Whether I’m successful or not is in the eyes of the readers, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
NEXT STOP: Part II of the visit to UCM.