Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
I came across some old photos last week. Two photos, actually. One from 2002, when I was editor of my college newspaper at Kishwaukee College. The other from 2012, when I was the adviser to that same college newspaper.
After developing a passion for journalism while working on the student newspaper in college, I graduated with a journalism degree and a commitment to the craft. I’d worked my way up from reporter to editor. As a reporter, I was a regular in the university president’s office, asking about the campus issues that mattered most to students. Shortly after I became editor, September 11 happened. As the newspaper staff worked overtime to cover the tragedy, I saw the impact and responsibility that reporters possess. We were the line of information to the public. Our words had power.
A few years later, I found myself back in that same newsroom – only this time, I was the adviser, teacher and mentor.
From that very first day, I wanted to spark the same sort of passion in my students that my own time on the paper had sparked in me. In fact, that’s what I wrote in the Journalism 101 packet I handed out to the staff. At the same time, though, I knew I had to walk a tenuous tightrope in my role: I was there to guide and advise, but the students, in order to learn, were in charge.
During my first year, a gunman opened fire in a classroom at Northern Illinois University, which was close to the college where I was working as an adviser. I guided the staff in covering the shooting, just as my adviser had done for me during September 11. I could see that spark begin forming in my students; they were starting to see that their work mattered, that journalism is an integral part of society – and especially, an integral part of democracy.
I also emphasized how much they had to learn from the reporters who came before them. I’d mention how two 20-something journalists for The Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. As they said in “All The President’s Men,” the film that chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s journey, “follow the money.” It will always lead you somewhere.
Although it’s been six years since I moved on from being an adviser to writing full-time, I can’t help but think of those student journalists when I see work by the thousands of journalists on the front lines today, many of them young. I want to say to them: Those whose voices are talking the loudest and deriding journalism don’t reflect the views of the majority of Americans. Your work is not going unnoticed by people who care.
As our political, social and cultural landscape continues to change, I think about all the lessons I’ve taught journalists in training and, especially, about what advice I’d give journalism students today.
And most importantly, I hope today’s aspiring journalists know that we see them and value them. In my letter to the staff on my last day as an adviser, I left them with these words: “You’re moving into a new era of journalism. The Web. Videos. Social media. They all come together. They all come together to help tell the story because, at the core, that’s what journalism is all about. Telling a story. Even though my time as adviser is coming to an end, your journey of storytelling is just beginning. I look forward to seeing where it takes you.”
If my experience walking in both sets of “shoes” – as a reporter and then as an adviser – has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to continue the journalism tradition for the next generation. I had amazing mentors and maybe someday, my former students will be a mentor for someone in return.
Indeed, there is a whole world of stories out there waiting to be told. Journalism makes a difference. Journalism matters. In fact, it might be just the thing that saves us all.