Saturday, November 09, 2013

Talking to the journalists of tomorrow

I had a neat experience this week that I wanted to share here. Dan Brown - an editor and columnist with the London Free Press whose work I've followed and admired for years - invited me to speak to his graduate program class at Western University. I'm lucky that Dan has also become a good friend, a trusted person who's been there, and always seems to make the time to answer whatever crazy questions I throw at him.

So it was, of course, a huge honor to be asked. At the same time, it was daunting: what, after all, could I have to share with a bunch of folks I've never met before? I didn't want to let Dan and his students down.

I remember full well what it was like when I was in journalism school and guest speakers would drop in. Some were, ah, forgettable. They almost read from a script, telling us what they did and did not expect as we dropped resumes at the reception desks of their Large Media Organizations. Almost as soon as class was over, they disappeared from memory, and for the most part I don't recall crossing their paths later on.

Other speakers, on the other hand, resonated. They'd tell you about themselves. About what it was really like to fight their way into and through a profession that's never been easy to navigate. They weren't afraid to let you in on some of their secrets. While they knew full well we might be competing against them in the open marketplace someday, they also knew that sharing always adds to both sides of an equation, that you don't lose something by letting others learn from your experience. It was a level of kindness that deeply influenced me.

I am the journalist that I am today because so many of these generous souls took the time - and had the courage - to give us everything they had. They turned the classroom into a workshop of media management best practices. They spared no detail and let us peer into what it was like for them to be where they were - and how they got there in the first place. They stuck around long after class and answered every question we could throw at them. They answered our calls months later when we bugged them with what must have been an endless stream of lame, newbie questions. They never made it seem as if we were imposing. I've remembered each and every one of them, and their lessons continue to push me to this day. I owe them more than I care to admit.

So when I got the call, I thought of them. I thought back to what made the good ones so memorable. I asked myself what newbie-me would want to hear. And what he wouldn't want to hear, either. I thought about how much more difficult it is to gain a toehold in this market today thanks to the implosion of conventional media models and their replacement by ever-changing, often-confusing new ones. As an industry, we're all in the middle of figuring it out - indeed, that pretty much defines my career path - so I can only imagine what it must be like to be just starting out.

So I outlined some approaches, bounced 'em off of Dan, then bounced into class and started talking. The neat thing was it didn't take long for the questions to start. And the talk became a discussion, one where I had my eyes opened just as widely as everyone in the room. I wish I could have captured that groove, that feeling you get when things are flowing exactly as they were meant to, so that I could visualize it for you here.

Dan, who I wish I had had as an instructor when I was first learning, often says, "When one teaches, two learn." And he's absolutely right. On this night, I learned. From him, from his students, from an experience I won't soon forget. I hope everyone else who was there feels similarly. And I hope I get to do stuff like this more often, because who are we if we're not constantly learning?

Your turn: Your most memorable lesson was...?

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