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Monday, August 15, 2005

Why I do journalism

Interesting read on Jay Rosen’s Press Think from yesterday. (Aside: I like that he uses the term “press” versus “media.”) He talked to j-profs about what they used to teach that they no longer believe.

There are some interesting insights from those who shared. Despite our calling it a profession, it is still a craft, practiced daily and perfected, one hopes, over a lifetime. It’s not a career for the financially driven and clearly that sends some fleeing. But ultimately the posts come back to the fundamental question of why one practices journalism. I don’t know what the answer to that question is for others, but I do know what the answer is for me.

I’m a journalist because I have to be. I love stories. I love researching stories and I love discovering stories. I love people and learning what makes them tick beyond the standard bio and press release. I love learning and exploring subjects I may have previously thought dull.

It goes without saying that I also love to write. I like to think that perhaps I have a knack for seeing things—whether it’s the absurd, the poignant or the humor in a situation. Or that I can put seemingly incompatibles bits and pieces together to weave a narrative. And yes, I’m an idealist. I’m hopeful that what I do makes a difference. But that isn't something instilled in J-school. I've been that way all my life. My parents taught me early on that I could make a difference in this world.

I’ve known what I wanted to do with my career from the time I was in third grade. My uncle was editor of a Tiffin, Ohio, newspaper and I was hooked when I first witnessed the buzz of the newsroom, filled with gravely voiced reporters barking into their phones and pounding on their typewriters. Everything they did was urgent, important to someone, somewhere.

My belief, and it proves I’m a product of my time, is that journalists can make a difference—still. I’m not talking about Watergate difference, though clearly that’s one way. I mean even in smaller ways.

That’s what keeps me going, that what I write matters to someone – even if it’s only one person. That it makes them think or question or relate or act in some way. Much of what I write goes unnoticed. Sometimes what I write helps on a larger scale. Here’s a recent example:


Many thanks for the copies of the Arlington Catholic Herald with your
article on Merton. It’s great.

It has created a further new acquisition for the Center. A lady in Alexandria, VA saw the article and owns an original Merton Calligraphy, which she acquired in the mid sixties. She is currently "downsizing" her home to move to smaller quarters and has donated the calligraphy to the Center. Thank you for the publicity, which made this possible.

With all best wishes,


Dr Paul M Pearson.
Director and Archivist,
Thomas Merton Center,
Bellarmine University,
Louisville, KY

There’s an element of preaching that goes on in journalism, not surprising since we often refer to it as a calling or a vocation. We’re telling people what they should think about, what they should know and, at times, what they should care about.

This summer I did a series of articles for the Catholic Universe Bulletin on some of the diocese’s unsung ecclesial artists. On the surface, it would seem these are not of great importance. I wasn’t writing of the latest encyclical or liturgical changes that affect all Catholics. I was writing about the decorations found in our city’s churches. But in reality, the story of the art in our churches is the story of us. It’s our history and it deserved to be recognized and preserved.

I know my efforts mattered to two people—the son of one of the artist's profiled who has embarked on a personal pilgrimage to see his father's work, and the director of the Center for Sacred Landmarks, which has received calls from other organizations seeking to partner in the protection and celebration of Cleveland’s sacred landmarks — calls that may or may not have happened, but that were spurred on by seeing an article in the paper.

I know plenty of people who left journalism for saner, more lucrative professions. But it’s never been about the money. And maybe that’s something journalism students need to hear in their first course. You have to be in it for more than a paycheck. If you practice it as your calling, it will never cease to surprise and fulfill.

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