What I learned
By Ben Welsh •
This past April I returned to my alma mater, DePaul University. It was a thrill to see the school's new Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence, which was recently established by veteran journalists Carol Marin and Don Moseley.
I got my start in journalism thanks to Carol and Don at an internship program they started at DePaul.
As part of the trip, I was honored alongside Lester Holt of NBC News in the center's inaugural round of journalism awards.
I was asked to give a brief speech during the ceremony at the Union Club of Chicago. I figured I'd never have another chance, so I uncorked an unauthorized commencement address for the students in the audience.
Here it is. I start a little bit after the 6:30 mark.
Thank you, Don. Thank you so much. I am so honored to receive this award.
And I am happy to have a chance to come back to Chicago, the place where I felt like I grew up and a lot of great things happened for me. I’m always eager to come back, as long as it's not winter.
I’m especially glad on this trip to have met the bright young students at DePaul’s new Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence, where I see the things I want talk about becoming part of DePaul as an institution and something so many others can benefit from.
On this occasion I also recognize there is no religious institution that’s properly run – as DePaul is – that could ever responsibly invite me to deliver a commencement address and risk tainting their valuable young minds.
So I’m just going to take my shot right now. Brace yourselves, I’m going to give you kids some advice.
Like all fables force fed to the young by their elders, this one starts with a boring piece of autobiography. Sorry, that’s how it goes. You’ll understand one day.
Here comes your advice from Uncle Ben.
My story starts about 15 years ago on the Lincoln Park campus when I was working on the top floor of the Schmitt Academic Center (SAC) in what was then the Department of Communication office. I was earning some extra money as a student there by answering the phones and doing odd jobs around the office.
One of the many important responsibilities I was trusted with was putting up fliers on the department's bulletin board. One day there was a new posting that announced an opening for an intern to work with two journalists who were taking up residence at DePaul: Carol and Don.
And, oh, by the way, their new office was only three floors below where I was standing. I just needed to take the elevator down.
As I was pinning that notice to the board, a thought popped into my head: “I don’t know what this job is but it’s probably a hell of a lot more interesting that pinning fliers on a bulletin board.”
So I jumped in the elevator. Because I was the first one to see the listing I was probably the first one to apply. Somehow I lucked into that internship.
I didn’t know it at the time but it was probably one of the luckiest days of my life.
I soon started. I had no idea what I was doing, I’ll confess now.
I soon learned the luckiest thing for me was simply to see Carol and Don work. I was inspired by their sense of purpose, by their dedication to finding and telling stories that matter – stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or be told to the standards that they expected.
Once I got past the fear that I would screw everything up and they would fire me – and, let’s be honest, the fear was pretty well founded – I started to wonder if I could ever take a stab myself.
I got my chance one day when Carol and Don received a tip that a local law firm was milking money from a Chicago suburb (you know the ones) by over billing the city for legal work.
It sounded like a good story of local corruption. Even I knew that this was the kind of thing that should be on the news.
But where to begin?
If it was true there would be evidence in the city’s financial books, which are public records, Don told me. Then he challenged me to sit down and write a public records request, something I’d never done before, so we could get to the bottom of it.
And then for weeks he egged me on, again and again, when a shady city official tried to delay, skirt the law and discourage me from pursuing this request. Because Don kept pushing me, I kept pushing the city.
Weeks went by. A lot of sternly written letters went back and forth. Then one day a package arrived. Inside was the data we asked for.
There was only one problem. The city had sent it as a massive printout of paper, a scroll over 10 or 20 feet in length that was connected like paper from those old 1980s printers with the holes and tearsheets.
There was no total cost of the legal fees and the pages were in inconsistent order and an odd format.
To make sense of it all, we would need to puzzle through this scroll page by page and add up all the numbers. Tedious, unglamorous work.
Not the kind of thing you imagine important journalists on television spending their time doing, right?
With Carol and Don’s encouragement, I built my first spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel and hammered in all the figures line by line. Hours later we had enough support for a story that exposed the exorbitant legal fees being charged to the city.
Carol read the big numbers I had added up on camera and even dropped the hilarious, long piece of paper from the top of a ladder to illustrate its size.
That was a moment for me where it clicked, where I saw, where I learned. All the slow frustrating work I had put in made sense. It wasn’t just worthwhile, it was essential.
I learned that what separates reporters who get the story – the Carols and Dons of the world – from the ones who don’t isn’t all that complicated. It’s hard work. It’s persistence. It’s a willingness to take on tedious tasks others haven’t or won’t. Most of all it is a determination to finish the job.
Despite all the changes I’ve seen in our industry since I got started way back in SAC, that truth is still standing.
It’s true if you work on a traditional old school city corruption story like that. It’s true if you’re experimenting with new story forms online to try to reach an audience that we’ve lost. It’s true if you’re doing something weird like me and trying to become a computer programmer but still be a journalist at the same time.
If you do the work and you do it the right way, like Carol and Don can teach you, you too can move the needle.
But if that’s something you really want to do, you have to start now. You start by picking up that phone, getting outside your comfort zone, filing that public records request, not giving up, digging into that ugly database, asking questions that haven’t been asked before and banging on those doors.
If whatever happens next frustrates you, you have to keep trying. You’re probably onto something. It’s only by pushing that you’re ever going to get there.
And the really good stories – the ones that are worth telling – they don’t come easy. You have to nail them down.
The best kept secret of all, the one I think we ought to advertise, is that when you are on the trail of something good there’s no better feeling. Or at least not one we can talk about in front of Father Holtschneider.
Carol once told me it’s like breathing different air when we were out on assignment, and she could tell I was feeling it. She was right. As soon as I got my taste I was hooked.
But like any good journalist, you shouldn’t take my word for it. You should go check it out yourself. You won’t be disappointed.