A birthday reflection on what journalism has taught me

Posted on May 06, 2011 by Janet Coats

Today is my 48th birthday, which means this year is the 40th anniversary of my decision to become a journalist.

I was 8 years old, in third grade at Ooltewah Elementary School, when I discovered I had a talent for writing. Ever the practical child, I dreamed not of novels or screenplays, but of a way I could make a steady living while writing every day.

I dreamed of journalism. I dreamed of working for a newspaper or a magazine, bearing witness to important events and then bringing those events to others through my words.

As my kids are quick to remind me, not everyone is blessed with knowing what they want to do at such an early age. And as I am quick to remind myself, not everyone gets to live her dream so fully as I have.

I have worked in amazing newsrooms with the smartest, funniest, most passionate people ever collected in one spot. I have covered hurricanes and airplane crashes and trials where matters of life and death were on the docket. I've been blessed to serve as editor in newsrooms that uncovered corruption and documented wrong-doing and made the lives of the communities they served better. I've known and loved both the adrenaline of deadline and the tedium of editing a 5-part investigative series.

Here is what I've learned from a lifetime of journalism, and what I'm still learning today:

* Journalism isn't about writing -- it is about service. There is joy, to be sure, in turning a beautiful phrase or creating a powerful narrative. But that joy is largely the joy of the craftsman, and the fleeting pleasure of the reader. I have found that journalism has the most meaning when it is focused on the long-term, grinding, often unpoetic work of strengthening community through a daily engagement with it.

* I was drawn to journalism by the allure of being "in the know.'' I now see that the power of journalism is in in the quest for learning. It is in acknowledging what you don't know. It is in inviting dissent and new information that shifts your understanding. Speaking as the voice of authority, as if our stories were handed down on tablets, has served only to distance us from our communities, to reveal an arrogance that is both unseemly and unwarranted. No journalist, and no journalism organization, is ever smarter than the collected wisdom of the community.

* As a baby journalist, I heard from my editors over and over again that we needed to "own'' the story. I always hated that phrase, and it took me 15 years in the business to articulate why. No story is made to be owned; it is made to be shared, to be expounded upon, to be shaped and formed not just by the person who creates a draft of it but by those who are living it. Good journalism is not a solitary pursuit; powerful acts of journalism come every day from people who don't make a living at the craft.

Journalism has brought me so much in my life, and I am grateful for the ways it has shaped the woman I am in aspects both personal and professional. Unlike my contemporaries, I don't worry much about its future. I see so much energy, so much dazzling possibility in the work of journalists who are focused not on what has been lost but on the myriad of opportunities they have to connect.

That said, I will indulge myself with one look back and tell the girl I was that she needs to edit her dream a bit:

Journalism isn't about a newspaper or a magazine or a blog or any other platform. It is about connection. Aim to live as a journalist who doesn't simply bear witness to events and bring them to others through words, but who shares fully in the life of a community. That is where the power of journalism truly lies.

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