Top 10 Things to Remember as You Begin Your Professional Journalism Career

John Anderson

MU grad John Anderson

I was doing some research for a class and re-read John Anderson’s tips to our J School graduates in December 2007. That was the year I received my master’s. He was wonderfully funny AND on point, so I saved his speech. Anderson is an ESPN anchor and a 1987 grad of the Missouri School of Journalism.

Many of our May grads are now several months into their first real world jobs and it’s a good time to share these tips from John.

Top 10 Things to Remember as You Begin Your Professional Journalism Career

#11 – We’re not math majors, so 10 is more like an estimate than a hard and fast number.

#10 – The “learn something everyday” cliché will require that you, occasionally, ask for help.
Four months into (my) first job in Tulsa the news director told me I was behind because I hadn’t learned how to run the live truck. I told him nobody had taught me how. He replied, “Did you ask?” Learning is easy in a lecture hall because you sit there and people teach you. From now on you have to be more proactive in acquiring knowledge.

#9 – Enjoy this day. You’ve earned it.
You will have few better outside of a wedding or the birth of children. This is your day. You worked for it. You deserve to celebrate it. And it’s real. Sadly, I can’t guarantee you won’t wake up at 3 a.m. many times over the next 20 years thinking it didn’t happen, because you’re naked and you have one last J-School final in a class you didn’t attend all semester, in a building you can’t find. So let me just reassure you today is real.

#8 – Professional success is bred here, it is nurtured here, it is fostered here, but it is not assigned here.
That is up to you. Do not fret if you are not in the top 10 percent of this class or worry that others here seem a bit further along the path. Your career can be whatever you want it to be based on whatever you’re willing to put into it. Likewise, to those of you leaving here with some sense of Mizzou self entitlement: It won’t fly. You, too, will need to prove yourself and to work for your success. Achievement, for any of you, has to be “achieved” – through skill, dedication, determination, sacrifice and, on occasion, a bit of luck. Example: I fell into my first full-time on-air position when the weekend anchor at my station went to Russia to adopt two infants. He was supposed to be gone a month. It ended up taking him four months, and he left the business when he returned to the states.

#7 – As you start tomorrow it’s great to have a goal, just don’t be married to the path.
In fact, enjoy the many twists and turns and unexpected forks you will come upon in the road. Take a chance — don’t sit and wait for your chance. Not every couple with fertility issues is going off to Vladivostok. Here’s the atlas of one J-School grad I know well: part-time news photographer, sports photographer, reporter – station switch – reporter/fill-in anchor, weekend anchor in Tulsa. Weekend anchor, interim sports director in Phoenix. ESPNews anchor, SportsCenter anchor in Bristol, Conn. And it’s all been a ball. I liked high school football games and swim meets, rodeos and Oral Roberts…major golf tournaments and getting drafted into news on election nights…spring training, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and any college stadium press box that serves chicken fried steak. In fact, eating chicken fried steak in a press box is the most fun I’ve ever had as a fully employed grownup.

#6 – Passion is the key.
You have to love what you do because it’s not always chicken fried steak in the press box. A lot of times, it’s holidays, weekends and missed weddings. There are 365 days in a year, and I’ve worked ’em all. And yet on days when I’m off, and something big breaks, all I can think is, “maybe I should go in and help.” True, the pay isn’t always good, the hours can be bad and not every story or assignment has Emmy or Pulitzer potential, but that’s when your love for journalism and your commitment to the craft gets tested. So find out what it is you love about this business and be rock solid in it because there are days when that passion is all you’ll have to sustain you. It could be writing, or investigating, or interviewing, story telling, helping people, thrill of the chase, the perfect photo, even being on TV – shallow but allowable. Just make sure you know what it is or go enjoy law school or the PR life. If you’re at all curious, rely on writing, sports and a good creamed gravy.

#5 – While you have your nose to the grindstone, don’t forget to look up and around once in awhile.
You’re going to meet neat people and tell their terrific stories and go to fun places, so please, do set the stress aside from time to time and enjoy it. You’re not accountants. Your job is going to be far more interesting and entertaining. Be sure to take advantage of it. Collect some stories and people along the way. And always be awake and alert and in command of your senses so that when the key moment or can’t miss story arises, you’re ready. Catch me someday when I’m not getting squeezed for time, and I’ll tell you my Lance Armstrong story.

#4 – The job is worth doing regardless of circulation or viewership or readership.
It doesn’t matter if you’re reporting for one or one million, or in ESPN’s case, more than 90 million homes. Do it well and do it right and do it accurately and do it fairly and do it ethically. Each of you is talented and prepared. Don’t cheat that gift, and don’t cheat the responsibility that comes with it. Each single person in your audience is the most important person in your audience. Tell it to them. And tell it with a cool head and a warm heart. When I was at KOMU there was one guy standing behind the camera. Twenty years later at ESPN, there’s still just one guy standing behind the camera. Although I will add how curious it is that in small markets I was considered a smart aleck, and now at ESPN, I’ve grown to become witty and clever. Anyway, get it right for the camera guy, and all the people on the other side will be taken care of as well. If you can do that, not mail anything in – ever, you will help build the reputation of the media as doers of good and ambassadors of truth…as professionals, who are far better than angry basement bloggers and cynical message board bullies.

#3 – We are Mizzou and Mizzou is you.
You may be graduating, but you will always be connected to this place. Trust me on this, too, because in about a month the Alumni Association is going to be calling and asking you for yearly dues. Join up. It’s inexpensive, and it helps us grow and share and protect this school. There’s a nice calendar in it for you, too. Besides, when you start making real money both the University and the J-School are going to come looking for a pledge. And they are fierce like badgers. These people would charge admission to see the stone lions if they could figure out a way to not back-up people getting into Neff Hall and the Quad. This place is looking to raise a billion dollars. We’re at, what $850-some million, yeah, and they’re coming to you guys for the last $150 mill. In all seriousness, this will always be your University. And, if not at this very moment, you will eventually become nostalgic for Ol’ Mizzou. Might be the Quad or the Columns, or some building or a boy, or a game, or a girl, for sure, Harpo’s. I encourage you to stay connected to campus and your classmates or anybody that has MU BJ behind his/her name. You’re officially in the mafia now. And we will return your calls.

#2 – I may not return your text.

Please, I’m begging you. Protect the language. Words, or so it appears to me, are becoming an endangered species.Use words. Use the right word. Spell out words. I’m not against technology and texting and Treos and BlackBerrys, but the world and all the words in the English language are being IM’d…BFF’d…TMI’d…BTW’d and NYOB’d to death. Four is a number. It is also a word spelled f-o-r, and they are not neatly interchangeable.  And while it may be NBD to you, the matter doesn’t make me LOL. It is not GR8, it is a-n-n-o-y-i-n-g (that’s annoying), and it needs to stop TSTB.

The field of journalism is based on words. They are our most vital tool. Do not abuse them. Good words make good sentences. Good sentences make good paragraphs. Good paragraphs make good stories. Just as the right words ask the right question, and the correct word conveys the correct meaning – thereby avoiding the phrase, “that’s not what I meant,” even though it’s exactly what was said. And this goes beyond texting. Kids and allegedly educated adults are butchering the written language more and more every day, mostly because nobody writes anymore. The decline started with the telephone, the television made it worse and texting is just dropping it another notch.

I have a spelling dictionary and a thesaurus by my computer when I write every SportsCenter, and while I use abbreviations like MVP and ERA, it is my firm belief the more and better I write, the less I will have to talk. Yes, ad-libbing is a great and sometimes needed skill in the broadcast business, but it is rarely as good as a well-reasoned and written-out thought. Ad-libs, or remarks made off-the-cuff, are first drafts spoken out loud. Which one of you here ever turned in the first draft of a paper? Likewise, well-written newspapers, magazines and online content can help lift language and words to their proper place of respectability and importance in civilization. Now, I do not wish to have anybody give up their PDA or cell phone. I only ask that you write and write well when your job calls for it or leisure time allows for it. And there is time: My track coach here at Mizzou used to tell me he didn’t know anybody who didn’t waste two hours a day. So one of these days, take those two hours and write somebody a letter. Not a thank you note or a birthday card, but an honest-to-goodness letter. I guarantee you’ll find that person will hold on to it for years and not accidentally delete it from their inbox. There’s a reason the book is always better than the movie: The book is in writing.

#1, finally – The diploma you are about to receive – nobody outside your family is ever going to ask to see it. I know your future bosses won’t because they will witness your educational excellence on the job every day. They will see the Missouri School of Journalism in your ability and your work ethic. They will see it in the composition of your photography… 
The wording of your questions… 
The quality of your interviews… 
The energy of your on-air performance… 
The originality of your ads… 
The professionalism of your conduct and your devotion to the field of journalism. And I am certain, above all else, they will recognize it in your writing: Writing that is creative, coherent and concise – notice the well-ingrained Missouri School of Journalism use of three’s and alliteration in that last sentence – and writing that will always be based on the correct words!

Thank you for the honor of letting me speak here tonight. My congratulations, again, to all of you.


One response to “Top 10 Things to Remember as You Begin Your Professional Journalism Career

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. Truthful and inspiring. I can only hope to have a graduation speaker as great as Mr. Anderson!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s