Practicing journalism: Teacher, director and professional reporter

By Meredith Cummings

I’m often asked why I keep practicing journalism, since I teach full-time. Our children watch us. Whether it is in the kitchen, classroom or the conference, they are always watching and listening. Ideally, we model good behavior. So why shouldn’t I do the same with other people’s children as I do my own child? In this case, modeling good behavior means doing good journalism.

Lifelong learning

Dr. Bailey Thomson

The question also reminds me of Dr. Bailey Thomson, a former teacher then colleague and friend at the University of Alabama, who was one of the brightest people I’ve known. He passed away much too early in this career, but not before becoming a Pulitzer finalist for opinion writing for the Mobile PressRegister editorial series linking many of the state’s problems to our dated, ridiculously lengthy 1901 constitution. In 1999, Bailey’s series called “Dixie’s Broken Heart” won the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award. It was also published by the PressRegister just before the statewide 1998 election.

I remember how much I respected him for not only teaching, but also doing, the craft of journalism. I loved that, with only a keyboard as his superpower, he could bring about change in our state and communities. The saying that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” has always irked me, yet it is never far from my mind. If my students are to take me seriously then I must continue to practice journalism in every form that I expect them to know.

spj-freelanceI’m an old school print and web writer but over the years I have learned multimedia journalism, data visualization and photography, among other things. It makes me a better educator because as a committed lifelong learner I can empathize with students who feel overwhelmed when learning something new. It allows me to break things down into digestible bits, much like what helps me when I’m learning something new. Continuing to do freelance journalism also allows me to remember that we all learn differently – some of us are visual learners, some verbal, etc. It also helps my professional growth, as I am able to stay connected to other professionals who might someday network with my students or serve as guest speakers for my classes. I share my experiences with students because as I share my experiences with students I learn from them, so can they. As a student of good journalism myself, I know this.

Willingness to share failures

When an interview goes south for me, I tell them about it so they won’t repeat my mistakes. When I make an error and crop a photo too close, I show them that. Yes, it opens me up as someone who makes mistakes, but I want my classroom to be a p lace for failure. I need them to feel safe trying new things and possibly even failing in class because when they enter the job market they won’t have the luxury of exploration, much less room for one error in a profession where objectivity and accuracy are sacrosanct.

It’s scary for any educator to put himself out there as a professional, in any subject they might teach. The vulnerability of willingly opening up myself to criticism from my own students is enough to make me want to curl up in a fetal position under my desk. Yet courage, as I tell my students, is being afraid and dong something anyway. Sometimes this means I interview a subject and write a story in real time in class. Sometimes, in my editing and digital production class, I may ask students to edit my work before it goes live.

Listening to the quiet voice

For other educators who want to blog, take pictures, write news stories, shoot video, manage social media, layout pages or practice journalism in any way, the best advice I have is to take a deep breath. Then remember we all are human. That’s what I do. There’s a sign on the door of my office right next to the handle so I will see it every day when I go home. It’s a fairly well known quote: “Sometimes, courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”

So I write on. I interview people I don’t know. I take photographs and edit video. I practice journalism. And practice, and practice and practice.

I may only sometimes get it all right. But I put myself there and I try. A lesson I hope my students see, hear and learn.

Meredith Cummings

Meredith Cummings is immediate past president of SPJ Alabama Pro and is Instructor of Journalism, Director of Scholastic Media, University of Alabama. @MereCummings