A letter to some Jedi journalists

by Mark Fogarty,  mentor in the NAJF 2017 program

When he was still an unknown writer, Walt Whitman sent some of his poetry to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a famous man of letters. Emerson immediately recognized the quality of Whitman’s work and wrote back to him, saying “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” As a journalist and a poet, I’d like to say the same thing to you. I greet you at the beginning of great careers!

First of all, congratulations on being chosen a Native American Journalism Fellow this year. This means that you are already elite and among the best and the brightest of your generation. NAJA has been running these mentorship programs for more than twenty years and deserves a lot of credit for cooking up a whole generation of Native journalists.

Your teachers and mentors may work you hard this week, but I can tell you they want you to succeed more than you even know. Not to get gushy, but we love you. We loved the idea of a new batch of promising young Native journalists before we ever met you, and we will follow your careers with great pride (and a helping hand if you want) for a long time after this week is over.

I’ve been counting on my fingers, and since my first job in journalism was as a copy clerk for The Jersey Journal in 1977, I have been a professional journalist for forty years now. So I’d like to take a few moments to pass on some of the most important things I have learned over that time.

I myself had a great mentor, Stan Strachan, the editor of National Mortgage News, where I worked for more than thirty years. Stan summed up the job of a journalist for me in one quick sentence: “A journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

To which I will add only, journalism is important. You can change the world with it. It is a decent way to spend four decades, or however many years you are in the business.

NAJA embraces the metaphor of the journalist as a storyteller. And while that’s true, I see an added role as well: that of a translator. A journalist working for tribal media translates the ways of tribal government for tribal members. A journalist working off the reservation can translate Indian experience and perspective for the dominant culture (which remains clueless to an immense degree).

Journalism is important work. And while it is important to be objective, it is even more important to be passionate about what you do. Stan used to say to his reporters, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” That’s even more true in Indian Country, where there are so many things to be outraged about. There’s an expression about where to get started on a story: Stick a shovel in anywhere. In Indian Country there is a need for a whole construction company worth of shovels.

It was outrage that led me into Native journalism. I was a mortgage reporter and editor for ten years before I found out that banks would not make home loans on Indian reservations. That was outrageous. Why? I started to ask, and have been asking for more than twenty years.

But it’s also important to remember that journalism is a stressful occupation, and a jealous mistress. This has always been true and is even more so today, with the constant deadlines of Internet content. If you let it, journalism will take all your time and energy. Don’t let it. It’s not your whole life. Look for balance. Don’t go in by yourself. Have somebody with you.

There are good ways to handle stress and bad ways. When I started in journalism, alcoholism was rampant. One of my jobs at the Journal was to stay and hold down the fort at 8 PM when the entire night crew went out to the bar. One night the publisher called looking for the night editor and when I tried to cover for him the publisher just said, “Get me the number of the bar they’re at. I really need to talk to him.”

Stan had a good line about alcohol, as well. He said, “When you’re young, you can both drink and work. When you’re older, you have to choose between them.” I chose work, and I advise you to do the same!

Remember that there shall be only one Journalism Juice: coffee. They can’t make enough of the stuff for us!

I have worked most of my life as a financial journalist. Woodward and Bernstein’s directive, gotten from their famous source Deep Throat, was “Follow the money!” Money, and the lack of it, is a key and somewhat undercovered segment of Indian journalism.

I have always thought that financial journalists are slightly better paid than other varieties. The closer you are to the money, the more of it sticks to you! That’s why the Wall Streeters who handle the money retain so much of it for themselves.

You won’t get rich being a journalist, unless you break in to the top echelon of broadcasters, who get paid like rock stars. But you can make a decent living at it. In my own experience, I went from being paid $160 a week (crap money even in 1977, my roommates were named Mom and Dad) to six figures. Now that I’m a freelancer, though, it’s about a third of that.

The pay disparity between men and women still exists, though it is slightly less disparate in journalism than in other occupations. My advice to women journalists getting a job offer is to ask, firmly but politely, is that is what you’d pay to a man with equal qualifications? Hey, you’re journalists, you’re supposed to ask tough questions!

My advice on freelancing is, become the master of what you do first. Unless you are an entrepreneurial genius, devote all your time and energy to the day job for the first few years and don’t try to serve two masters. Later you will be able to do both successfully, and you will be an expert in demand. If I wanted to hire a freelancer to cover capital punishment, for instance, I’d hire Graham Brewer because I know he covered that beat, including witnessing executions, for years in Oklahoma.

White males dominated journalism in 1977. There was one woman in my first newsroom. During my time, this has changed. Just look at all the women in this newsroom and you can see it clearly. Gender equality is a battle on its way to being won. What hasn’t been won, and so far hardly has even been dented, is the lack of diversity in newsrooms.

This is the fight of your generation. Your success will make it happen. Your brilliance will open doors.

There are statistics you can look at, but I prefer examples, they are more concrete. Ramona Marozas, who was a student in this program not many years ago and then a mentor and now a NAJA board member, told me she is the only Native television producer in the Northland. That’s wrong!

I’m from the East Coast so I’m not sure exactly what the Northland is. But it sounds like a big area. And I know there are dozens of tribes there. There need to be more Ramonas in the Northland.

I was proud and happy when a mentee from NAJF 2014 got accepted into the top-rank Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. But Jourdan Bennett-Begaye told me she was the only Native J-student in the program during her time there. That’s wrong! I’m delighted to say that Jourdan has gone home to the Navajo to teach journalism to high school students. I have no doubt one of them will be attending Newhouse one day.

You students obviously can help change this by having successful careers in journalism. But I also lay this responsibility on you: pay it forward. Become mentors as soon as you have job wisdom to impart. That is an impressive thing about this NAJA program. Ramona and Graham have come back as mentors just a couple of years into their careers (it took me 35 years to start thinking maybe I could be useful as a mentor). Don’t make this year your only year in NAJF. You are here as Padawans. Come back as Jedis.

You are joining a long line of dedicated and successful Fellows in this program. Mentees from recent classes have such resume items as CBS Evening News, USA Today, the Newhouse and CUNY J-schools, the Navajo Times, The Cherokee Phoenix, FNX, and many others. You will, as well. Some of you already have those kinds of resume items.

I am proud that seven of my mentees from NAJF ’14 and ’15 went to Standing Rock to report on the pipeline story, and several from NAJF ’16 went too, I understand. Some went more than once. Most went without an assignment in hand. They just knew it was the most important Native story of the year.

Standing Rock is an excellent example of the uses of social media. The news from Standing Rock often could be found first on live Facebook feeds. I heard dogs barking in the Facebook posting of one of my mentees so I knew the story of dogs being set on protesters was not fake news.

Standing Rock also is a great example for the current-day tendency to teach new journalists that everything has to be balanced. Reporting must be balanced, but don’t let it get out of hand. The formula of “A says this while B says this” often doesn’t work in Indian Country.

Part of the value of a journalist is your intelligence, your news sense. In the civil rights days no reporter would write “Dr. King says this, and the KKK says that.” Dr. King was making the news, not the KKK. At Standing Rock, the water protectors were making the news, not the pipeline people. Use your best judgement about what is the news. In my career I often started a story by asking myself, what’s the most important thing here?

But yes, getting both sides of a story is important. I call it the BFA Rule: Be Fair to Assholes. If you are writing about an allegation that someone is defrauding the tribe, you need to call that person and ask them if they are defrauding the tribe.

I don’t know if anyone pays attention to the Five W’s of Journalism any more, but if they do, the most important of them is why. I hope you will always try to answer that question in your work.

My vision for you is simple, although the execution might be difficult. You must be journalists on steroids, in tune with your sense of outrage, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable. You will look deeply into everything you cover. You will always be asking why. You will stretch the boundaries of journalism.

I graduated from Rutgers University-Newark, which US News and World Report found to be the most diverse university in the country. This year I became Facebook friends with a young Muslim-American journalist there, Zainab Said. Zainab aspires to be both a journalist and a doctor, and sees a lot of overlap between these two disparate fields.

I see a lot of you pursuing double majors, and I think that like Zainab, you will not think you have to be either a journalist or a doctor. You will be forward slash journalists. A journalist/doctor. A journalist/poet. A journalist/entrepreneur. A journalist/teacher. A journalist/gamechanger.

Is there really the kind of overlap that Zainab sees? I’m a journalist/poet, so are there overlays between those two? Yes, there are. Poets and journalists both look into the heart of things and then bring them back to a society that depends on us to express them, to translate them. Journalists may focus more on the factual side and poets more on the emotional side, but they are similar ventures.

Shelley once called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Journalists, too, are unacknowledged legislators, shaping (I hope) truth and goodness and decency and fairness.

So, as Emerson told Whitman, get live on Facebook and Twitter, dude, and start kicking some ass.


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