I am sitting seaside this morning, watching grandchildren frolic in the surf. But I am thinking how it won’t be long until these youngsters will be like you — nervous first-years at college somewhere, wondering what they should major in.
Since my family comes from a long line of communicators — writers, photographers, librarians, designers and reporters — it’s quite likely some of these frolicking pre-schoolers will grow up to work in the media.
And it’s only fair for them — and you — to ask, when your high school commencement comes around: what will the media landscape look like? What skills will I need? Where will the jobs be? Can I make a decent living? Maybe more importantly, will I be happy? Will my work be fulfilling? Will I get up every day looking forward to going to work? And most significantly, will my work make a difference in this fractured old world?
Indeed, you are probably asking these questions of yourself right now. I know your parents are.
So, this letter is meant to reassure you that your career choice is sound and valid. From the perspective of a lifelong journalist, I can say without reservation that right now is the most exciting, pivotal, strategically important time for great journalism. If ever a nation needed truth-speaking reporting, this is it.
OK, so maybe some of you want to be a TV anchor at CNN, or a globe-trotting photographer for National Geographic Magazine, or a lead sportswriter for Sports Illustrated.
But that’s highly unlikely to happen straight out of J-school.
So, I’d like to invite you to consider an alternative path to a rewarding and fulfilling career in journalism. It’s called Community Journalism.
Enter Stage Right: the Boothbay Register
I wrote the above preamble two months ago back in my native North Carolina, but lacking a literary device to advance my essay’s pitch, I abandoned the piece.
Until today, when I picked up this week’s copy of the Boothbay Register, and was forcibly reminded again of how great journalism can be done so well in small places.
A vacationing newbie to Maine, I can claim to have the acquaintance of only three souls in this delightful village. Yet this morning I spent 45 minutes poring over the 22 pages of the all-local Register, engrossed in the lives of hundreds of people I’ve never met and probably never will meet.
Nevertheless, I read that fellow Tar Heels, the Ritterhauses of Raleigh have returned to Sprucewold…from Robert Mitchell I learned what it feels (and looks like) to live in Maine in winter…I resonated with columnist Joe Gelarden’s recollections of his folksinging days back in college…Suzy Thayer took me on a whimsical cook’s tour of all things pesto…and in the obits, I marveled at the life saga of the amazing Emmalin Welch. And that’s just the tip of the local news iceberg in this week’s Register.
So, here’s my point: when a newspaper can command the total attention of a complete out-of-towner for the better part of an hour, somebody is doing something right. (Hats off to editor Kevin Burnham and his staff at the Register.)
OK, Kid, Here’s the Deal
So now, back to our young wanna-be college journalist wrestling with his or her choice of major: Take heart; your instincts are true. Journalism is a noble calling — indeed, a free press one of the pillars of our democracy. And speaking truth to power and holding elected officials accountable — well, it’s more important now than ever — whether it’s the West Wing or the local city council.
If you want to wake up every morning excited about the day to come, if you want to help change this old world with the power of your fingertips on the keyboard or the shutter release button, if you want to help tell peoples’ stories, if you want to make an impact for social justice and civic engagement right now and not 20 years down the road, then you have found your calling.
And here’s the best part: you don’t have to wait until CNN, National Geographic or Sports Illustrated comes calling. You can start right now. Bloom where you’re planted. There is no better place to start than local. Like legions of nationally famous journalists before you, start small, learn your craft in your own backyard, hone your skills at home.
How? Volunteer at your college paper, get a gig at your local NPR station, look into an internship at your local paper. I promise you, editors and general managers will welcome your fresh energy and youthful enthusiasm.
Community journalism is sometimes referred to as “roots journalism,” a loving tribute to its authenticity. This newspaper you are holding now is a shining example of that — what CBS legend Charles Kuralt called “relentless local” journalism.
Let that be your credo and mantra. Go for it, kid.
Yr hmbl svt
The ol’ perfesser
Jock Lauterer is a senior lecturer at the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A former founding publisher of two community newspapers, he is the author of the textbook, “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local.”