Talking to Michigan State sports journalism students brings back memories, advice for a new age

Me with my new friends who are spending a month in Paris and Rome learning about sports media.
Me with my new friends who are spending a month in Paris and Rome learning about sports media.

I like speaking to college journalism classes because it reminds me of how wide eyed and optimistic I was at that age.

Then I tell them they’re all doomed.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Journalism has changed drastically in the age of the Internet, and college journalism students adjust better than old guys like me. They learn how to build websites before we learned how to build model airplanes. They know how to use social media like a CBS engineer commands a TV truck. They can do video and audio and put it on the Internet before they get on their bike to ride back to their dorm.

Meanwhile, my newspaper business is going the way of the pay phone. I recently read that in the last 10 years, the number of reporters in American newsrooms has dropped by 40 percent. I left The Denver Post in January 2014. I was the first of four sportswriters to leave. The Post has added one. They promoted an intern. In the mid-2000s, The Post had about 25 full-time sportswriters. Now it has 10. Three more in sports are targeted for buyouts Thursday. It’s not The Post’s fault. It was one of the last of the big dailies to hold off mass cuts. It’s just the Internet Age. It’s where anyone can get almost any news they want for free. News flows like water. And it’s just as cheap.

The 17th century Palazzo del Banco di Santo Spirito.
The 17th century Palazzo del Banco di Santo Spirito.

Tuesday I spoke to a group of sports journalism students from Michigan State University. Twenty-two students are traveling for a month to Paris and Rome with weekend jaunts around Europe in between. We met in the Palazzo del Banco di Santo Spirito, built in the 1600s to house the Vatican Bank. Just a Frisbee throw from Piazza Navona, the Baroque palace with the four columns bordering the front door is now home to study abroad offices, language programs and the Belize Embassy. It sure beat sitting in a featureless, plaster box at University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

I’ve spoken to journalism classes at numerous colleges. I can usually tell the quality of students by the quality of questions. Michigan State’s students get it. They asked how Italy has changed me. They asked what was the most memorable sports event I ever covered in the U.S. They asked what I thought of the direction of writing in American journalism.

At UNLV, they asked me what Mike Tyson is like.

At Colorado Mesa, a small school in western Colorado, they asked me if I knew Woody Paige. “Yes, he hired me.” End of discussion.

Unlike myself, who wanted to be a sportswriter since the fifth grade, Michigan State students are interested in social media, TV, multimedia, public relations. In other words, they’re smart. They’re going where the jobs are.

We touched on a lot of different topics. They have talked to a wide range of interesting guests during their trip: CNN, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Eurosport TV. I guess I’m considered unique because I left the sinking dinghy that is the newspaper business and grabbed a retirement life raft that floated to Italy. I’ve gone from an ink-stained wretch writing about Nebraska’s defensive line from a coffee shop in Lincoln to writing about the five best pizzerias in Rome. Instead of traveling to Alabama, Iowa and Texas, I travel to England, France and India. Granted, usually it’s on my dime. But it’s also on my schedule.

I admit there’s a romance to writing a travel blog and freelancing for vino money. Impressionable college students who visit Rome and taste the pasta and drink the wine and pass the back-lit monuments think it’s a dream life. I get that a lot. However, I made sure I impressed upon them that making a living this way is real tough. Few do it here. Newspapers have slashed or eliminated freelance budgets. Travel magazines have folded. Websites get so much free content from travelers who just want to see their name on the Internet, they don’t have to pay a dime. I blog free for other websites just to get exposure for this website.

I’m the journalism equivalent of a homeless hooker having sex with a man just so she has a place to sleep that night.

One person asked me if I’d write differently if I lived in another country. I would because I wouldn’t have the same passion in my writing. I intensely love Italy. I adore Rome. I hope my writing reflects that passion because it’s why I usually write for free. I get emotional writing about my experiences here, from shopping in my public market to the friendliness of the Roman people. The best writing comes from the heart and I don’t think I’d have my heart in writing about Germany.

I try to leave three impressions on college students. They can take it or leave it, but I put it out there to chew on, kind of a like a burger in a college bar:

1. Learn to do everything in media. You can’t just be a great writer in journalism. You must know how to handle a video camera, audio equipment, how to use the social media to your advantage. You must know how to self promote and become as accustomed to Internet staples such as page views, domains and analytics as the starting rotation for the Detroit Tigers. With Michigan State, I was preaching to the choir. They were way ahead of me.

2. Upon graduation, don’t get a job right away. Travel. Get a backpack and a cash card and travel the world. When I graduated in 1978, I traveled around the world for a year alone. It changed my life forever. I developed a new perspective on life, particularly my own, and learned a little about a lot of things. There is no better background for a journalist in today’s market. An international resume looks very good on an employer’s desk. Michigan State is taking the step in the right direction. They all have the travel bug. I could see in their eyes they will never lose it.

3. Write a journal. Even if newspapers may become as rare as stone tablets, writing is a skill that will always be valued. The only way to become a writer is to write and read. Read and write. I kept a journal from ninth grade through my freshman year in college. I kept a journal during my trip around the world. Even today I travel with a small, lightweight word processor where I keep my daily journal wherever I wake up in foreign countries. Get angry. Get sad. Get passionate. I told the class, “Writing is 25 percent skill, 25 percent courage and 50 percent personality.” If you have the personality and courage to put your views out there, you will be read even if you’re not John Steinbeck.

I still believe in journalism. I still believe in truth. It keeps all aspects of society in check. At one point in my youth, I could’ve been a committed Marxist if it included a free press. A free press keeps ideas circulating. It keeps society’s thugs nervous.

That will never change. I hope Michigan State’s students don’t, either.