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Listen First, Ask Questions Second- Life Lessons From Journalism School

“Journalism is dying.” “Better to major in business.” “It’s not like you can get a job at a newspaper anymore.” “Good luck with that.” Just a handful of the encouraging things I heard from peers, parents and even strangers as I declared my major in journalism at a state school in 2012. I understood their opinions; journalism was, and still is, an evolving industry. But instead of listening to them, I stuck with my gut and thank God for that.

I went into my first few classes with some background knowledge — I was the editor of my high school newspaper and even placed third in the state for Feature Writing at an annual state sponsored competition. But I quickly learned I was not “all that” and had to put some real effort into my studies and writing. As I finished up my introductory-level classes and became more immersed in the j-school world (a windowless basement of a dated red brick building), I realized that the things I was learning were far more than just skills to write a good story. These lessons were generally applicable to daily life. Semester after semester, teacher after teacher would lecture on more or less the same thing: Listen first, ask questions second.

Most people interested in journalism, documentaries, print news, broadcast news or anything of the sort have at least one quality in common: curiosity. Without it, there would be no news, no features, no informed opinions. Curiosity is the catalyst for any story. The inherent nature of curiosity is a good thing when channeled, but it cannot overshadow the importance of listening.

For someone with a Type-A personality, the philosophy of “listen first, ask questions second” was hard because it often involved a change of plans or improvisation and a subsequent feeling of vulnerability. In one class at school, we were asked to interview and write a story about a business owner. As I was preparing my questions, I focused solely on the business itself. How did it start? How had it changed? What was its future? I was right to prepare for the interview, but I was wrong to assume the story would be about the shop this person owned. Minutes into the meeting, I realized that the business was probably the least interesting thing about this person. Almost all of my questions were trashed on the spot. I instead was forced to lean deeper into the dialogue and ask questions based solely on the conversation. Not only did I walk away with a story that scored me an A, but I learned a lesson that has served me well in my professional career.

Of course this lesson was among many I learned in my four years at school, but it’s one that made sticking with my gut and my chosen major worth it. I often think back on a class featuring a guest lecturer, the VP of Marketing at a Fortune 500 company. She sat in a room among several hundred journalism students and said, “I would much rather hire one of you than a business/marketing major.” We all laughed as though she was kidding. It was common knowledge around campus that the business kids were considered to be in tougher classes and held a more vigorous class load than us journalism students. (No complaints here.) But the fancy VP of Marketing was serious. “You know how to write and speak; that’s what I need in my department.” I felt vindicated. While the industry may continue to evolve, the fine art of journalism will never die.

My degree in journalism offered a fairly direct segue into a career in the advertising and marketing world, and an even easier one into an agency that is literally #poweredbylistening. Had I listened to the naysayers and dragged my feet through business school, I would not value intangible things like listening, curiosity and a go-with-the-flow mentality. I’m thankful for the path I have taken because, at the end of the day, asking first and listening second does not do anybody any good.

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