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Newspaper editor and IJEA board member Greg Bilbrey knows from experience that good things happen when journalism professionals mentor young people. "The takeaway here," he writes, "is that you CAN make a difference — starting now."
October 29, 2016
Writer’s note: This is an edited version of a keynote address I was asked to give at the recent Illinois Community College Journalism Association fall conference at Eastern Illinois University. The theme was “giving back” — and that it was never too early to begin doing so. It was suggested to me that other teachers, advisers and mentors, at both the high-school and college levels, might want to read it and even share with their students, so please do so if you wish. (This picks up the address after the introduction in which I had talked about my own community-college experience and how it had made me a fan and supporter of the community-college model.)
One of the things I began to learn during that community-college growing experience, even though at the time I didn’t realize it as “a thing,” was the importance of mentorship — both finding good mentors and developing continuing relationships with them, and then looking for opportunities to be a mentor — to give back.
“Giving back” is kind of the theme I wanted to go with this evening, in part because you’re just starting out in this profession. For someone at my stage, it seems normal and even expected that I should be trying to give back, sharing my experience, seeking to be a mentor. Like in the recent Geico commercials, “It’s what you do.” But you guys have got a lot on your plates already, and may not even be sure yet that this is what you want to do for a career. Why should you already be thinking of giving back?
To help show you why, I’ll bring in a young friend I met in an unusual way. I was at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University, a few years ago, receiving one of those career-achievement awards that people my age start getting if they hang around long enough. After the presentation, a mom and daughter came over and introduced themselves. And the mom really wanted to have her daughter’s picture taken with me. I wondered why, of course; I didn’t know them, had never met them until that moment, hadn’t seen any of the daughter’s work — assuming she was a journalism student and was working for the Herald. But it was my one day as a rock star, so I went with it.
I got to talking with the young woman, who was a senior at WKU, originally from Atlanta, hoping to go to work for the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, a very good regional paper to which Western had sent a lot of people for internships and first jobs. She was a delight to talk with – she was excited about being a journalist, and ready to make a difference.
Here’s an excerpt from something she wrote me when she was indeed hired, talking about what she wanted to accomplish:
“I aim to promote ethical reporting and restore the public opinion of the media. I hope I’m not sounding too ambitious here; that’s quite a task. But I will try to do that over the years because I really love journalism…”
Hope you caught that — “over the years.” Just starting, and yet already looking to the future. She continued:
“Another thing I want to do in Owensboro, once I get settled after a few months, is create mentor programs with young students who might not know that journalism is an option for them. The goal isn’t necessarily to push them to be journalists in the future, but to show them how the media works in hopes that they will have a greater respect and trust for it as adults. Besides, the lessons that journalism teaches in terms of communication, decision-making and honesty are far too valuable not to explore.”
Very wise words from a 22-year-old, to say the least.
So not only has Angela succeeded in her job — she’s already teaching at a local community college, she’s on the board of the Owensboro Human Relations Commission, and has even won recognition for her leadership and service to the African-American community there. And she’s still only 28 years old. She’s not only been an inspiration to her colleagues, her students and her community — she has been, and continues to be, an inspiration to me. The takeaway here is that you CAN make a difference — starting now.
Not only is Angela giving back, she’s giving back for the right reasons. I don’t think I have always done that. Early in my career, I think there was always an element of, “This is another line on my resume. This will help me get to where I want to be.” But Angela, like all African-Americans, frankly has unfinished business with this nation. She’s working for justice and solidarity and pride. It may have just taken root in Owensboro, Kentucky, but I think her influence will soon reach far beyond the banks of the Ohio.
The point is, that you find a place, wherever that is, and you leave it better than you found it.
LESSONS FROM CAMP: IN THE TRENCHES
You’ll have noticed by now that I haven’t talked much about journalism yet. I wanted first to nail down this thing about giving back, and never being too young or inexperienced to do so. However — and this is the segue into journalism — the place where I really learned that first was in the high-school journalism camp that happens every summer on this campus.
There are many incredible aspects of this camp — it’s certainly the best one I know about, and is probably one of the best in the country. But one of the things I noticed right away when I began helping with it, and was immediately impressed by, was the number of then-current journalism students and recent graduates who also helped, in addition to the faculty and visiting professionals.
One of them, in fact, stood in this very spot a couple of years ago, giving the keynote address for this conference. Nora is now the editor of a community newspaper in Champaign County, one of several that The News-Gazette owns in the region. But way back then, even as a student, she was in the trenches at journalism camp, trying to get the best out of high-school students who had a wide range of interest and experience, working with them where they were and trying to get them to see where they could be.
Nora helped with camp — and many other journalism-related things at Eastern — for several years after graduating, even as she did the work of starting a career and a family. And of course she’s still giving back — making her little corner of Champaign County better than it was when she got there. But once again, like Angela, her influence will reach, and has already reached, far beyond this campus, or the community she’s working in.
LESSONS FROM CAMP: THEY GET IT!
One of the most exciting things about giving back is what you learn along the way, and that’s also something I discovered at camp. One very important thing I learned is that many, many young people still care about journalism.
When we talk about what we do, when we show them what we do, when we work alongside them to help them learn to do what we do — they get it.
The vast majority of students I’ve worked with seem to understand the importance of finding out what’s true and what’s not, and telling people about it.
They get the importance of learning to tell stories well and to present their work effectively. They get the difference between journalism and what claims to be journalism but is not. And most of them seem to get it almost intuitively — like, “Well, of course — why would you trust a blogger whose latest post is sourced by, ‘a lot of people are saying?’”
KEEP LEARNING — BECAUSE YOU’RE NEEDED
Another thing I’ve learned, through my high-school newspaper advising, my work with IJEA and my work in recent years with this conference, is the importance of journalism education, and fighting to keep it, and student publications, in the curriculum and on the radar, at every level — high school, community college, university and beyond.
As an adviser, I tell my students at Casey-Westfield High School every semester that every award they put up on the wall is one more piece of evidence to put in front of a school-board member or administrator who’s thinking about cutting journalism and/or student publications.
And as an employer looking at new graduates, whether from a two-year or four-year program, I look for student-publications experience first — at any level — before I look at GPA or other academic factors. A journalism graduate with a 4.0 average who has never darkened the door of student publications isn’t going to get much consideration when there are resumes on my desk that include publications experience.
So what you’re doing right now is important: Taking the journalism classes that are available to you — and I know that varies widely among community colleges in Illinois — working on your student publication, if you have one, and coming to this conference this week and attending these sessions. Continuing education — which this is — is another thing I value highly in the experience of a student or a professional. And, like giving back, it’s never too early to start.
Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned through my attempts at giving back is realizing how badly you are needed in our profession, and in our society, right now. After a decade or two of following clicks and pageviews, news organizations are finding out that not all clicks are equal; they need real journalism to generate those clicks. Readers, faced with the cacophony of voices and the torrent of information online, are finally beginning to realize the value of real journalism to sort it out — to find the truth and tell it.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT NEWS LITERACY
So as journalists today, not only do you have to do the job journalists have always done, you are also going to have to educate your audiences in news literacy — sorting out what’s news and what’s not, what sources are reliable, what’s reporting and what’s merely stenography.
This is a form of giving back, too, if you think about it. We can argue about how news literacy has been lost over the years — or to what extent it has — but helping citizens, from elementary-school age onward, regain an understanding of what news is and why it’s important is one of the greatest public services we can provide right now.
This is too important not to repeat: Helping citizens regain an understanding of what news is and why it’s important is one of the greatest public services we can provide right now.
A CALLING AND A PRIVILEGE
I want to close with a quote that contains as much truth in a single paragraph as I’ve encountered in a long time. Before my last class of the spring semester at CWHS, I was looking for inspiring stuff to leave them with — examples of good journalism, good observations about journalism, that kind of thing. One of those I received was from Dr. Sally Renaud, who is not only a dear friend but who runs the journalism department here. I gave it to my students verbatim, and plan to share it with every group I have the privilege to work with in the future. Listen to this:
“Journalism is one of those professions that is a calling: the desire to know what’s happening in your world and tell others, and the curiosity to notice something and ask why. All talents are welcome, from writing to speaking, from drawing to photography, from sales to editorial. It takes a true village to produce good journalism. Good journalism shows all sides, including the good, the bad and the area in need of change. For me, the best part about being a journalist has always been the people I have worked with and reported on. What joy to be in a newsroom with some of the smartest and most interesting people around, and to report on the people of your community. I love this profession, and I am always proud to wear the label of journalist.”
Always remember that despite the profession’s challenges — the new ones and the ones that have always been there — it truly is a joy and a privilege to be able to do what we do. And may you always be proud to wear the label of “journalist.”
Greg Bilbrey, CJE, is managing editor of the Robinson Daily News in Robinson, Ill. He is co-adviser of Casey-Westfield High School’s student publications and board member of the Illinois Journalism Education Association. He is also a board member of the Illinois Press Foundation and has presented at numerous workshops for students and professionals.