Looking for the signal fires that guide our work

Posted on March 22, 2011 by Janet Coats

My days are so filled with juggling kid schedules, work, wrangling two cats, taking care of the guinea pig and the chinchilla (not to mention burying the gold fish that my daughter won at the fair) that I rarely get to indulge my passion for pleasure reading.

This weekend, I found a spare couple of hours to open novelist Pat Conroy’s meditation on the importance of books in his life. Called “My Reading Life,’’ Conroy’s book traces how books have influenced – he says even saved – him from his boyhood on.

While the subject matter is the influence of books, it is also about the influence of the people who introduced those books to him. He describes his 40-year friendship with the high school English teacher who first introduced him to the works of Thomas Wolfe. And he talks about his mother, a proud woman who grew up poor in Georgia to become an officer’s wife embarrassed by her lack of college education.

His mom – with whom Conroy had a relationship that can only be described as fraught – is the one who really introduced him to the joys of reading and language. She set herself on a course of self-education that led her – and by extension, her son – to discover the classics. She also shadowed her son’s schoolwork, reading Shakespeare when he did and following his curriculum when he attended the Citadel. As Conroy said, he realized only later in life that the day he enrolled at the Citadel, his mother did too.

Conroy uses a wonderful phrase to describe the gift his mother gave him when she brought the love of reading into his life. He said his mother lit “signal fires’’ for him to follow, fires that would serve to light his way far into adulthood.

That phrase really captured me and made me start thinking about the people who’ve lit signal fires for me in my life. My own mom encouraged my dream of becoming a journalist from the time I was 8 years old. My first editor, a stubborn and determined woman, established my understanding of what is ethical behavior for a journalist. A whole series of mentors taught me how to lead an organization in good times and bad.

The work we’re embarked on with the New Media Journalism Initiative is about both setting signal fires and letting our thinking be illuminated by the fires others have set. I’m in the process now of interviewing candidates for the community manager position we are enabling for the Block by Block group of entrepreneurial publishers. Each of the candidates has inspired me with a vision of how to build, stoke and tend those signal fires for these innovators, through sharing both problems and aspirations.

One of the things that I’ve found so inspiring about learning from journalism’s new entrepreneurs is their willingness to share with each other. In the old guard, we could sometimes be too competitive, to focused on the romantic idea of journalist as lone wolf, to really collaborate effectively. This isn’t true in this community. I’ve been impressed both by the willingness of publishers to help and be helped.

This idea – of accepting help when you need it and offering it when you can – is powerful not only for what it brings to a community of innovators trying to develop their own work, but for what it says about the role of journalism itself. It defines a reciprocal relationship that should infuse journalism’s connection with the community’s it intends to serve.

Journalists should be about the business of not only lighting those signal fires, but of letting their work be guided by the fires others have set.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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