It was supposed to be the other way around.
When the student newspaper adviser at Western Washington University asked us to meet with his students in Bellingham last week, he wanted us to talk about our careers and the changing newspaper industry. Convince them there is a future in journalism, he said. Inspire them.
Hopefully we accomplished some of that, but more than anything, the students inspired us.
Randy McCarthy, leader of The News Tribune’s crime and breaking news team, went with me to WWU. At the request of adviser (and former TNT business editor) Jack Keith, we led a critique of Tuesday’s edition of The Western Front with his class of about 50 students.
McCarthy and I liked the broad array of story topics, we told them. The photography was strong. So was the writing on a feature story about an upcoming play. And the editorial criticizing the Associated Students board for deciding behind closed doors to fire a student member? Gotta love a well-written appeal for open government.
Then we turned to the lead story on the front page, one we thought fell short. A WWU teaching assistant had been booked into jail on suspicion of felony assault after an off-campus shooting incident. A lead story? Maybe, but the brief four-paragraph story never said what happened that led to his arrest.
“Why not?” we asked the top editors. They were on deadline, they explained. The Bellingham Police Department wouldn’t answer their calls. All they had was a brief online police report.
Did the police report include an address? McCarthy asked. Yes. Did you go there to ask neighbors about the incident? No. Did you find out what classes the assistant taught so you could talk to his students? No. The class discussed other ways to get information and agreed to write a follow-up.
Another story prompted as many questions from students as from us. Why was the student fired by the Associated Students board the only person we heard from in the story? Why did the story let him go on for so long? Why didn’t the story question his allegations about the board? Good insights from students just beginning to think about a career in journalism.
After the critique, the students quizzed us. What is the TNT looking for in job applicants?
At most we’d consider only 10 of them, McCarthy said, the best 10. So learn to write. Get good at it. Be the reporter who’d drive out to a crime scene to get more information. Work hard. Don’t whine about getting a late night call from an editor checking a fact in your story. Care so much about getting it right that you’d want the editor to call. If you don’t have that gene, find a different line of work.
After class, we chatted with nine Western Front editors. The harshest parts of our critique had invigorated them the most. All nine want to go into journalism.
“I learn something new with every story,” said Mike Lydon, managing editor. “I am becoming a better storyteller. I want to find the stories in life and tell them.”
“It’s so fulfilling,” said James Kozanitis, editor-in-chief. “I didn’t expect it to be.” He struggled as a reporter for The Western Front until he got his first scoop and landed it on the front page. That felt good.
“I am a newsman,” Kozanitis declared. “I’m doing something good. I know it.”
“There’s something to be said for hanging out with astronauts and rock stars,” said Nathan Dalla Santa, the Front’s opinion editor. He’ll never be an astronaut, he said, but he interviewed one. “It’s inspiring to be surrounded by people like that.”
For photo editor Laura Going, it is the promise of “connecting human beings.”
“I can bring people a lot closer through photos,” she said.” I can help them see another person that otherwise they’ll never be able to meet. I can open up the ‘worthwhileness’ of their lives.”
Thanks to the students at the Front for reminding us how much we love what we do and why. And if this group represents the next generation of journalism hopefuls, then heck yeah, there’s a future in this business.
JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR
The Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists on Saturday named TNT reporter Lewis Kamb its first Journalist of the Year.
Kamb was nominated largely for his five-part series last year about the federal immigration detention facility on Tacoma’s Tideflats, but also for his watchdog approach to covering Tacoma City Hall and local elections.
“He is an exceptional journalist because he is equal parts dogged beat reporter, collaborative and persistent investigator, and creative and compelling writer readers are so much better for his tenacious, multidimensional commitment to his craft and his role in democracy,” his nomination read, in part.
We’re glad he’s on our team.Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 firstname.lastname@example.org