Try to learn something new every day.
It is a simple idea, but one that is sometimes hard to put into practice amid the hectic pace of modern-day life. Yet, journalists are uniquely positioned to keep learning, both about their world and profession.
In a way, we are paid to learn. We educate ourselves almost daily about our communities, our country and the society around us. It is our job to learn all we can and then report back to our audiences about the nooks and crannies of life.
Some of us even learn enough about our craft that we are asked to teach others — as editors, professors and trainers. It is this class of leaders that need to most heed the advice to learn something new every day.
As journalists, many of us begin our educations in the fine journalism schools across this country. It can be a crucial step in our development. Our experience in journalism school can also help decide whether or not we pursue this profession or go another route — public relations, law or perhaps politics.
As someone who hires young journalists, my advice to professors is twofold. Teach students the basics, but also ingrain in them a passion for the public service mission that quality journalism demands.
Young people need to show up to their first newsroom able to contribute. They should already know simple things such as asking sources to spell their names, how to take notes and maybe even how to write a passable lead.
Equally important, however, is to teach them that journalism requires passion and a desire to serve. Help them to find that passion and nurture it. Explain to them the nobility of giving a voice to the voiceless, of seeking truth and reporting it. Do not be afraid to teach the social importance of the craft, that the underpinnings of our democracy depend on a free press. Teach them to be proud of that.
Conversely, I would suggest teachers in the newsroom — editors — remember to learn from staff members. The reporters around you can teach you a great deal about your own job — how to manage personalities, how to continue to be a good listener. Encourage them to challenge you. Empower them to collaborate with editors.
As I have traveled this country from coast to coast on SPJ business, I have learned about the incredible resolve of journalists to see their profession through these times of change. Journalists and journalism educators are not giving up. They are forging ahead. They are more than willing to learn the new skills and principles required to move our profession ahead in this Internet age.
I have also learned about the incredible courage journalists in towns large and small carry into the field every working day.
We have intervened on behalf of a camera man being manhandled by the police, a reporter having his cell phone records subpoenaed by law enforcement, photographers arrested for their reporting and a reporter being financially intimidated to give up her sources by a federal judge. Journalists’ rights are challenged by everyone from federal judges to local sheriffs to government bureaucrats every day in America.
In my travels and service, I have also learned how difficult it can be for some people to remain in our profession and do the job the way they want to each day. Journalists balance family life, relocations and a struggling industry. The one thing I have learned from them is that, universally, it takes sacrifices to remain in this field. These folks are willing to give what it takes.
SPJ is here to help journalists in this transitory time. Through our Legal Defense Fund, diversity resources and outreach, FOI efforts and the best professional training, SPJ is making a difference in the careers of journalists everywhere.
Perhaps that is why our membership ranks are growing while the industry is purportedly sinking.
As my term winds down, with the 2008 SPJ Convention & National Journalism conference just a few weeks away, it has been an immense and humbling honor to serve you this past year. You have taught me a great deal about journalism, people and life. As we say in the South, journalists are “good folks.”
This year, you good folks have been the teachers, and I have been the student.