When I was a kid, my sister and I would seriously annoy our mother in various ways – honestly, it usually was not intentional – and my mom would, at times, exclaim with exasperation: “It’s no wonder I’m half nuts!”
(It was understood, of course, even by a hair-trigger smart-aleck such as myself that if I’d have dared to say, “Only half?” that I would have been playing with my life.)
Now that my sister has three children _ I’m glad to stick with “aunthood” _ I will sometimes joke with her, “Well, it’s no wonder you’re half nuts … but what’s my excuse?”
All of this is to say that I suppose every human being who’s lived to be old enough to not be “young” anymore, has wondered how “today” got to be “yesterday” and even “a long time ago” so quickly.
I see commercials during baseball’s postseason for an upcoming TBS series called “Glory Daze,” about college frat-boy life in the 1980s. Yeah … think I’ll be skipping that show. My fondest memory of college was the day I took my last final and knew I passed, so I was done with school. Wait … that might be my only fond memory of college.
OK, I’m exaggerating … a little. Suffice to say, I did not like college, and maybe it’s ironic – or something – that I love covering college sports. But one thing I can say positively about college for me was that a clear path was pretty well established back then if you wanted to go work for a newspaper.
You got your journalism degree, you applied for jobs, you got one (deep down, you always just assumed you would), and then you started what you hoped was your climb.
I didn’t do it exactly like that. I did get the degree … but for a few months after graduation, I didn’t apply for any jobs. I helped my parents move to a new house, worked part-time at the Missouri journalism school’s newspaper, went for a lot of walks, stared at the ceiling, watched a ton of old movies like “Doctor Zhivago,” and generally just observed the world spin around me, not sure when I was actually going to jump aboard the ride.
I’m reminded of a time when I was very young and at the department store with my mother, who still held my hand when we were getting on an escalator. This particular day, she was carrying too many bags/packages to extend her hand. She didn’t actually realize it was critically important to me. I was afraid to get on the escalator by myself.
So she got on and started the ride down, just assuming I was right behind her … but I froze up and couldn’t step onto it. She got to the bottom, realized I wasn’t with her, turned around and called back up to me, “What are you doing? Come on.”
I put my foot out … and pulled it back. I tried again. And tried again. I really wanted to do it. I just couldn’t.
My mom had to put her stuff down, then ride back up and get me. I can remember all this vividly. The strange thing is, I don’t have the slightest memory of when I was able to do it by myself. I’m sure it couldn’t have been that long after, because I was ashamed that she’d had to retrieve me. But the moment of triumph over that fear apparently never registered with me the way failing to overcome it did.
I suppose those months of avoiding taking the plunge of going to work “for real” might have been my adult self afraid of stepping on another kind of escalator. Whatever the case, once I did step on _ early in 1988 at a newspaper in Jackson, Tenn., _ that was that. I haven’t been off since.
But the collapse of the newspaper industry in the past few years has left all of us who’ve been in journalism for any significant time questioning everything about our past, present and future in this business. Many people have left or been forced to leave the industry.
Through things such as blogs, message boards, Twitter and Facebook, anyone can have a forum of sorts. And if a great number of people see journalism as an avocation, how many can expect to keep it or make it into their vocation? As it’s done in so many industries, technology has changed journalism profoundly and irrevocably. We can’t ever go back, but we’re not entirely sure the best ways to go forward.
It is in this uncertain environment that I keep wondering about the health of something that always has been important to journalism, but not always adequately valued. And that’s mentorship.
Some people my age, in their 40s, have gotten a lot. Some have gotten only a little. But the thing is, it used to be easier to give advice, were someone so inclined to do that. The path to being what was called a “print journalist” was the same for many years, for instance.
When I was 22, I could have asked a 45-year-old about his or her journalism career and applied a lot of what they said to my own. But now that I’m the 45-year-old, when someone in their 20s asks me – which they periodically do, often through e-mail, which I didn’t have at 22 – for advice on getting into this industry … I find I’m not nearly as certain what to say as I would have been at 35.
That uncertainty isn’t about things like knowing the value of listening to and watching people, the necessity of being curious about and interested in others. It’s not about how editing is a huge part of writing. Nor about the need to work hard and always expect it won’t be easy.
Rather, I don’t know how to tell them the way they can be sure to make a living doing it. Because it is different, they dynamics and the rules have changed, and there are certain realities now that didn’t exist when I got started.
But there is also this factor: Those of us who’ve been in the business a while and have experienced layoffs and cutbacks and morale crushers – and that’s most journalists – may be too caught up in our own worries to be in a good frame of mind to mentor.
And, to be blunt, we may even have become so concerned about keeping our jobs that we no longer have the inclination to help the next generation coming up. They might be perceived as just another threat to push us out of work. That’s sad, and it’s a detriment to what really will continue to survive of this industry.
I was talking to a college student by phone last week about all this. And Wednesday morning, before beginning my 15th Big 12 women’s basketball media day, I’ll be speaking – along with some other journalists – to a group of students interested in this industry.
I don’t want youngsters – or older people in other professions who – despite everything – actually want to get into journalism – to feel nothing but the doom and gloom of the past few years in the media industry. They should still feel there are possibilities, that there is still a need for what journalists do to continue being done well.
What I want to say to the students is if they truly have a passion for it, they likely will find a way to do it.
No one needs me to hold their hand for this escalator. But what I, and other journalists, should do is avoid giving young people the impression that there’s no use even getting on it.