Editorial: Letter to a young journalist
01/10/2017 10:09AM ● Published by Richard Gaw
Maybe, from your byline in the school newspaper, or your poems and essays and short stories in the school's lit magazine, they've been inspired to act on the very questions you ask yourself: "How do I make my mark?" "Where do I begin to find the roads that will lead me there?" If you're looking to tuck your goals within a formula, or plug your aspirations into a destination package, journalism offers none of them, especially with the current, fluctuating state of the industry, but if you're set on this -- as we expect you are -- we're willing to lend a hand.
Always, always, think out of the box. Although most of us have come through qualified journalism programs, a tour of newsrooms will also uncover former teachers, clergy, attorneys, musicians, poets and filmmakers, each of whom bring the tools of their experiences to the business of telling news. It's a rich pageant of diversity. Open that book of inclusiveness, and keep it open.
Read everything. If you are not reading at least four to five legitimate [non-fake] news sources a week, find another career. Journalists are incorrigible news junkies, and we read everything. If the only way to get you to a newspaper or online news source is through the sports page, continue to scan the box scores first, but then pore through everything else: culture, politics, business, technology and the opinion page. Know the classic novels but also the best-selling books. Aim to know a little about everything. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy,” but the majority of our electorate doesn't read much now. Consequently, your job title will also be that of an educator to a busy public.
Ask the second question. George Orwell wrote, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” More and more, the world's news sources have become the equivalent of a Snuggie blanket, intended more to comfort rather than inform; to satiate but not puncture; to promote rather than to investigate. Don't give in to it. Every piece of information you will sort through as a journalist owns stories beyond its facts. Find them. Ask questions, and then ask more questions. Journalism is full of PR hacks who win trophies for editorial excellence, but they do nothing to further the cause of finding truth. In the face of brazen acceptance, be brazen, and for God's sake, be slow and right rather than fast and wrong.
Don't believe anyone when they tell you 'Journalism is Dead.' You're coming into journalism at what could become its finest hours. If anything, we are becoming more empowered, by our ability to tell the news, and by the number of tools we have to work with. It will test you and inspire you; it will ask you to make sense of a world of increasing and debilitating dysfunction. It will ask that you explain the consequences of global and capital power in the hands of a few. It will bring you to the borders of hatred and atrocity; and it will force you to rise above the muddy waters of distrust in your profession from the country you live in. Just keep working.
Several years ago, a Chester County Press staff writer was on assignment from a regional magazine to interview two oceanographers at the University of Delaware, who were studying the mating habits of the blue crab along Delaware Bay. One evening, the writer found himself in a small motor boat at four o'clock in the morning with the two oceanographers, more than seven miles off the coast of Lewes. For more than three hours, he watched the oceanographers search with flashlights for the female blue crab in the pitch black water. As he watched the grayish images of the oceanographers working in the near darkness, the irony clicked in the writer's mind. Everyone on that tiny boat was there to search for something they felt compelled to know more about. Finally, the writer broke the simmering silence.
“What is it about the blue crab that compels you guys to leave your families in order to jump in a boat at four in the morning?” he asked.
The ocean clucked at the sides of the boat, as the older oceanographer answered.
“For the same reason you're out here with us, asking questions,” he said, waving the rays of his flashlight back and forth. As his answer hung in the soggy air, he continued.
“Chances are, no one who becomes an oceanographer gets rich doing it. They don't become famous. But we keep doing it, and why? It's probably because that despite all of the hard work done in the quiet places, there is one thing that we're guaranteed of...That we will have the complete joy of spend our lives chasing our curiosity.”
Wherever your journey will eventually take you – whether it be on air, on line, or in print – we invite you to let your own curiosity serve as your guidepost and your center.
Now go chase it down.