Inspiring Experiences of a Journalist

In the days of Twitter and Facebook, media consumers are becoming media producers and professional journalists are finding themselves scooped by citizen journalists. So saysJohn Larson, a veteran broadcast journalist and SUNY New Paltz’s 10th James H. Ottaway Sr. Professor of Journalism, in an interview with Interim President Donald P. Christian.

Larson recalled the 2009 Hudson River plane crash in which Capt. “Sully” safely landed and noted that Twitter was the first to have coverage, including photos, within minutes of the crash. It wasn’t until hours later that the mainstream media caught on and began their saturation.

“Our social media world is increasingly vibrant,” said Larson. “In years to come, it will be user-shaped and user-controlled.”

A vet in the field, Larson is no stranger to “new” media. In order to swim in journalism today, Larson advised the 40-plus aspiring journalists in the crowd to continually learn the technology skills needed to survive in a competitive media market.

“Without [technology], you have two and a half strikes against you,” Larson said.

In the interview, Larson shared other lessons learned from his 20-plus years. He left Colgate University and his hometown of Berkley Heights, N.J. for his first reporting job in Alaska. It’s here, he said, that he sunk his teeth into the job that would become his passion. Prior to his move to NBC and Dateline, he worked for KOMO, Seattle, from 1986 to 1994.

As the Ottaway Professor, Larson is teaching a storytelling and multimedia journalism seminar this spring to ten hand-picked students, primarily journalism majors.  It’s a coup for these students and for SUNY New Paltz, as he is sought after as a teacher, mentor and speaker. Larson frequents the Poynter Institute, the National Press Photographers’ National Workshop, Society of Professional Journalists, and The Radio and Television News Directors Association. Larson said he hopes to aid his students in becoming better storytellers and hopes they will learn to understand how media can enhance their stories.

“I want to help students elevate their writing,” Larson said. “[My goal is] to take these already-good ideas and see where they can take them.”

Some students now taking the course find Larson and his experiences impressive and inspiring.

“I’ve never been so inspired as a journalist,” said Maxim Alter, a fourth-year journalism major, when referring to the course expectations, conferences and conversations with Larson.

The class can anticipate in-depth conversations and experimentation with different types of media to help these young journalists become better storytellers.

“We wanted somebody in multimedia because we’ve largely had print people and someone who was broadcasting in its current manifestation which is moving online,” said Lisa Phillips, head of this year’s Ottaway committee. “John just so clearly stuck out in his level of wanting to connect, and his enthusiasm.”

Larson revealed that, prior to pursuing journalism, he double-majored in philosophy and religion. Studying theology closely enough to debate Seminary, he generated a world view unlike most of his peers at NBC.  Religion, he said, asked a lot of great questions, but did not answer most.

“The best writers and journalists look for the details that we all share,” he said. “I’m firmly convinced there are things we all share regardless of nationality or belief.”

As the discussion continued, the role of objectivity in journalism arose. Larson insisted that, despite the importance of maintaining one’s objectivity while reporting, this does not mean that every story needs to add the facts together and divide by two.

Larson unveiled an experience while he covered a story in Texas on a death row inmate.

For about three months, Larson visited the inmate weekly to understand his story. Larson was his only visitor. In the inmate’s final days, he handed over his blood-stained Koran to Larson; he could think of no better person to give his most precious possession. Though Larson was there for a story, a bond had grown during their time together and he learned to deeply care about the inmate as an individual.

“You have to get close enough where you can care and feel deeply enough that you will fight for whatever truths are in front of you,” he said. “That doesn’t mean advocate for them, but it means to do the work so you can understand.”

Before closing, Larson gave some pointers to the group’s aspiring journalists. He urged them to appreciate and understand the world around them while keeping it all in perspective, and that the most important writing task they will have will be to make people care.  He stressed the importance of having, following, and near-worshipping mentors, as a piece of advice from his own mentor stuck with him forever.

“I had felt like such a big fish in a small pond. Then [my mentor] said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re a big fish in a big pond. How well can you swim?’”

Larson shared a story of his from the early years of his career, when he was a journalist living in Alaska, a metaphor to explain the skills and patience a journalist needs to succeed.

The native Alaskan men would hike near the top of the Yukon River to hunt salmon for the season, where the water was rough and difficult to see through.  These men developed the skills to sit silently and patiently, until they were able to see the motion of the fish under the water. The art of concentration is what fed the Alaskan people.

Larson reasoned that a great journalist can operate the way these native Alaskan men had. If a journalist is still and patient, focusing on their object, they too will be able to see through the opaque layers, find their story, and swim.