Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Last lecture

I’m teaching my last class of the term tonight. It’s a reporting class, filled with students who have learned skills over the past 10 weeks that improve their chances of finding nonexistent jobs in a dying profession. I exaggerate. Many of these students are extraordinarily savvy with media forms about which I know next to nothing. The ability to communicate effectively with words, while already an arcane talent, remains a key accessory to the multimedia toolkit they will soon be carrying into the job market.

So I will be giving my last lecture. This is not to be confused with “The Last Lecture” made famous by Randy Pausch, nor the last lectures given on campuses across the country when honored profs are invited to spout off on whatever they think important. I don’t know when I’ll teach again, so given this opportunity, I intend to challenge my students with a few modest objectives. I share them here because some have as much to do with life as good journalism.

My top 10 list for aspiring journalists

#10: Master the conventions of news reporting. Yes, they’re restrictive and in some cases dull or strange or annoying, but they’re how most reporting is still done. You need to know what others have already learned, and be qualified to write the type of story that runs the mayor out of town, if need be, and possibly wins you an award—or at least a raise. Know how to write in the inverted pyramid style. Learn to write a kick-ass lead. By all means know where and how to write a nut graf. Get the basics down cold. You don't have to love them, but you do need to know them.

#9: Once you’ve learned the rules, break them. The best reporting starts with the basics, and then takes off. Once you know how to write a good news story, tweak the formula or totally break it, and start doing things that no one else has done before. Take chances. Challenge the status quo. But be good at it. Don’t expect to get away with breaking the rules if you haven’t already learned what the rules are. Invent your own style. Develop your own voice. It will take time. Be patient as you learn when and how to take your writing talent in new directions.

#8: Be a real reporter. Generate original news. Too much of what we read, watch and listen to in the news media is an endless recycling of the same old news bites. Someone, somewhere has to start with a notebook or a tape recorder and ask the questions everyone else is too lazy or intimidated to pursue. Or dig into court records. Or observe first-hand news events as they happen. That needs to be you. Learn to take good notes. If you blog—and you should be blogging—break new ground. Go places where others fear to tread, and report on what you learn. Be bold. Be original.

#7: Be intellectually curious. Keep asking questions. Peel back the skin of the onion. Find out why something happened, and not just who, what, when, where and how. Don’t take “no” for an answer. In fact, don’t take “yes” for an answer either. Keep digging. Challenge assumptions. Serve your readers by asking the questions they would want you to ask. Be their advocate.

#6: Tell the truth. First, believe that there is such a thing as truth. Most people these days don’t, which leaves them vulnerable to the blandishments of spin doctors, talk radio hotheads, TV pundits and self-appointed experts on nearly everything. Believe that somewhere at the bottom of every pile of manure is a pearl—a small gem of truth waiting to be discovered. Listen for whatever has the ring of truth, and which sets to right all the crap that surrounds it. And when you find it, tell others. Make no apology for breaking the bad news, if that’s what it is. Think Toyota.

#5: Write well. Be literate. If you can’t write well, no one will care about what you have to say. Those who do yield enormous influence—more than you realize. Being educated does not equate with being literate. Be both. Build your vocabulary. Love words, and discover their meaning. Read as much as you can. There will come a time, sooner rather than later, I’m afraid, when most people will not be able to write. Those who can will be leaders, because they alone will be able to express the ideas and information we need to live.

#4: Become technically savvy. Be a multimedia maven. Just as words are tools, so are computer programs, and video cameras and tape recorders, and smart phones, and pretty much anything that Apple makes. Combined, they’re your toolkit. If you’re a lover of words and technology scares you, get over it. Learn all you can by taking classes in the NMC program. This is the place and the time to do it. If, on the other hand, you’re already skilled with the digital media, great—but also learn to report and write. Career-wise, you have no choice. This is a demanding field. You need to be both left and right-brained.

#3: Get or remain involved in student media. Build a portfolio. Bulk up your resume. Enjoy the experience of participating in student media, which is low stakes but wide open for those with talent and drive. Everyone has a shot at being the boss. Start building your professional network with other leaders in new media, and with profs and advisors and anyone else who can help you along the road to professional success. Have fun. If working in the media at any level isn’t fun, then you better change majors. Try library science.

#2: Connect with people. Tell their stories. This is the essence of journalism. This is what everyone wants to read. How the heck do we make sense of this crazy, screwed up but still beautiful world we live in? We tell each other’s stories. We tell them in hard news, and we tell them in features and in every other medium available to us. With pictures. With video. With games. With graphics. And, of course, with words. With media not yet invented, but which will be in your lifetimes. Blow the whistle on the bad guys. Break hearts with the sad stories, and tales of woe. Inspire and encourage with stories about those who do good work or who simply have found a way to make it through a day, against all odds. Remember that most people want to know that there’s more to their lives than what they personally can see, touch and hear. They want to know they are not alone. Bring it home to them. Be the messenger of tidings—sad, bad and glad. It’s an enormous privilege to be the story-teller. Don’t take the job lightly.

#1: "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." If Ernest Hemingway can say this about himself, then I guess we should all remain humble about being journalists. Work hard, learn all you can, do good. And know that the best any of us can do is to make a sincere effort. As long as you’re getting better at what you do, you can be proud of your profession and proud of who you are.


Anonymous said...

You are a remarkable man. Thank you for sharing your "last lecture". As you say, it is fine advise for all of us: love words, learn to write, tell stories, be curious,connect with people, live honestly and well. Keep up with technology - hmm. Alright, I'll try.

Steve said...

Well put. Now, send this to every big-city reporter in America who is younger than 50, most of whom never learned these things and probably never will. We'd be a better America if they only would.

Tom Hess said...

Telling stories about people ... that's great advice for new hires and veterans alike. Thank you, Peter.

Laban Pelz said...


So many great thoughts within but the one that stands out is about people wanting to know there's more to life than what they can personally sense. It's that knowledge that will instill a sense of purpose and keep a writer going while his profession is in the middle of a revolution, in this case a violent one. I also like the part about being dual-handed in the head. You show that good writing will never lose its value.


Anonymous said...

I would have enjoyed sitting in on a few of your classes. I'm sure many of your students did too.

manxnan said...

Peter, I was deeply honored to be your guest speaker on this evening, and to be in the room when you shared these words of wisdom to your class. I was taking notes, too!

Your students impressed me with their attentiveness and engagement. Despite it's being the last class of the term, they stayed to the end, asked questions, cared. It was clear to me that you inspired as much as you taught. Congratulations, Professor Ogle.