The 6 things you learn as a journalism mentor

Mentoring is one of the most important things we can do as journalists. But I wonder whether we’re doing nearly enough of it.

It’s a difficult time in our newsrooms, and it's easy to forget that our colleagues, especially the younger ones, are being asked to sink or swim.

Many of us are fighting for our own survival. So it’s hard to think of lending a helping hand, let alone a sympathetic ear. But our survival depends on our commitment to mentoring others. The act of helping others makes us stronger and wiser leaders. We learn what our strengths and weaknesses are.

And the younger journalists who are brave enough to enter our business today will help us find our way through the news industry’s tumult. They are the ones that we need to nurture and encourage.

What do you need to become a mentor?

You need to be a good listener and ask tough questions. You need to know when to push and when to back off. You need to be supportive and recognize a potential in your colleague that he or she does not yet see. You need to watch your judgmental attitude.

I don’t think you have to be a grizzled veteran to be a mentor; young journalists should mentor others, especially high school and college journalists.

All of that said, mentorship -- committed, authentic mentorship -- can be a rocky road. Let me first share some of its joys:

  • You learn more about journalism. I find that I learn more about the craft -- in my case, reporting, writing and editing -- when I mentor others. That’s because I’m forced to break down what I do into smaller parts, ponder why some things work and others don’t, and then articulate that to someone else. That helps me become a better practitioner of the craft. In turn, these journalists end up teaching me what they know. For example, several younger journalists introduced me to social media tools a few years ago.
  • You learn more about yourself. I realize that I’m not nearly assertive enough in the newsroom when I push others to be more vocal. I realize that my patience can be a double-edged sword; sometimes people need a sense of urgency. I realize that sometimes people don’t need an array of solutions, which I'm inclined to give as a former engineer. No, they often just need to vent and know they’ve been heard.
  • You create a legacy. I experience great joy when I watch the success of people I’ve mentored. Some of that joy is altruistic, but I think some of it is selfish, too. I think many of us are seeking some sense of permanence, a legacy that lasts beyond the words we’ve written or the stories we’ve uncovered. When I cross paths with a journalist I’ve mentored -- it can be months later, or years later, or decades later -- and I see how much they’ve grown and how far they’ve traveled, I think: I gave something of myself to them, and now that small spark lives on.

As I mentioned, mentorship can be rocky. Here are some of its challenges:

  • You realize that you don’t know everything. I get frustrated sometimes because I don’t have all the answers, and sometimes I wish I did. Or I wish that I at least had some of the answers. More and more young journalists are coming to me dispirited and disillusioned, and I try to persuade them to stay in the business. But I worry that I’m misleading them by telling them to keep the faith. Because some of them won’t make it in the business.
  • You come face-to-face with your own flaws. There are times when my impatience and frustration have flared, and I’ve allowed myself to speak in a judgmental way.
  • You realize that you can’t always help. As a mentor, I can be a sounding board and offer advice and do my best to advocate for a colleague. But I can’t promise my colleague a job or a promotion or a plum assignment or even to always be treated fairly in the newsroom. It hurts to watch when a young journalist learns that the newsroom can be a vicious puzzle of a place and that the world is not fair.

So why become a mentor?

I’ve never believed that you can fully learn how to be a journalist in school. Journalism is still one of those trades where you learn through doing and you grow through apprenticeship.

And so we have to step up to make sure that our colleagues are not ignored or neglected. Even though times may be different, we can share our experiences and show them the paths that we have taken.

Ultimately, they will know that they are not alone.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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