Below is the final chapter of my 2022 book, Learning Journalism Where Writers Rise: Four Enlightening Years in Graduate School at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I hope it’ll inspire you to give the book a read.
I received my Master of Arts diploma in the mail on September 10, 2016. My wife, Jill, took a picture of me holding the piece of paper and posted the image on Facebook, where it got a gazillion likes and comments.
I wish I could say the original inspiration to write this book stemmed from some idealistic desire to teach what I learned about journalism and spark an interest in others to pursue the craft, which has gone through turbulent times in recent years. And though the project did evolve into me having those lofty intentions, the reality is that it was sparked by my desire to earn some extra cash.
It all started with Rob Dial, host of the podcast The Mindset Mentor. One day in August of 2020 I was listening to one of Dial’s shows, “How to Make Money Online.” In his enthusiastic way, Dial began relating numerous money-making online endeavors, some of which, he said, raked in millions of dollars for people. Among other things, Dial said folks could earn good money online by posting YouTube videos, running Facebook ads for others, doing consulting work, selling supplements, setting up a Shopify store, establishing an online clothing brand, or selling other people’s products via affiliate marketing.
Dial also mentioned side jobs I’d done in the past, tasks such as writing articles and doing freelance work for Upwork. Then he mentioned writing books for the Amazon Kindle, also something I had done in the past.
“I know people that make a bunch of money by finding a specific topic,” Dial said, “and they research the hell out of that topic, and then they take that topic and put it into, like, a fifty-page Kindle book. They sell it for $4.99, but it’s such a hot topic that it just goes through, and they make a ton of money doing it. So, you can literally write books in Kindle if you wanted to.”
Voila. I would write about the hottest topic around—journalism—thanks to the knowledge I’d accumulated in graduate school, and then sit back and congratulate myself as the Amazon royalties flooded into my bank account.
I plowed forth, and what I found out immediately was that, while Dial’s advice to churn out a profitable fifty-page Kindle book on a particular topic had its appeal, there was no way I could write such a puny book.
I simply had too much to say about journalism and those who taught it to me.
My part-time reporting days began when I was in my early thirties. That’s by no means an ancient age, but it was a far older timeframe in life than when the hardworking and passionate journalist Roger Ebert got his start. Along with Ebert, history shows a few greats in journalism got their starts in Champaign-Urbana, a town where, it turns out, writers rise. Along with Ebert, Bill Geist and George Will started their lives in C-U. My humble start in the newspaper business occurred toward the end of February 2005.
Earlier that month I’d broken up with my girlfriend on the day after Valentine’s Day and, coincidentally, had a self-published novel released on the same day. You would think the latter happening would have helped ease my sorrow over the breakup, but that wasn’t the case. The novel, you see, was panned by my own dear mother, who marked up her free copy with a slew of edits and recommendations following its publication, showing me in a detailed manner where I’d gone wrong. And she was right to do it, too. The book had issues and needed more polishing prior to publishing. This was a few years before the onslaught of social media, so I didn’t bother to promote the novel Phantom Reunions and let it fade into online oblivion.
It’s fair to say I was feeling a little useless and down at the time.
But looking back, I recognize it was also a period in which I was anxious for something more, primed to shake things up in my life. I made a living as a copywriter and was ready to start thinking bigger, with the realization that success and attained dreams don’t just fall into a person’s lap. So, I answered an ad in The News-Gazette—one that I’d seen in the classifieds many times before—for a part-time sportswriter position at the Mahomet Citizen. This turned out to be a life-changing act that gave me loads of much-needed confidence.
I got the job and began working with this grizzled newspaper veteran named Bruce Yentes, who never really gave me any advice about anything, but whose demeanor helped me feel like I was an authentic fellow newspaperman. I threw myself into the part-time journalism gig, soaking in and loving every minute of the coverage I was doing. I enjoyed traveling to the sporting events to cover the games (you earned more money if you attended the events in person), and I loved talking to the coaches and players, ascertaining their thoughts and formulating in my head how they might correlate with the heart of the story. I didn’t love the transcribing I had to do to create the stories, but I did love the part that came after that: the writing. Sundays were a busy day for me as I called coaches to get their comments and then did the write-ups, waiting with anticipation afterward for the small-town newspaper to hit the stands later in the week.
Not long after I started, Yentes moved on to an editorial position at another newspaper without saying goodbye—kind of a bummer. I began collaborating with a much younger, cheerier editor named Michelle Robbins. As time went on my stories for the Mahomet Citizen evolved. Robbins was easy to work with and asked me if I wanted to start doing feature pieces, which appealed to me more than writing sports articles. This went on for more than a year, and then a few things happened that helped further the trajectory of my writing career.
The first out-of-the-blue event occurred when Emily Hills (now Emily Schmidt) called me to see if I wanted to write sports articles for a free publication in Champaign-Urbana called The Hub. I said yes right away, but I think I only wrote and turned in one or two sports articles during my time with that paper. The rest of my write-ups were feature pieces on various individuals in town and around the area, with one of them being a story about The Ms, a Chicago rock band I really dug.
I may as well have been a journalist working for Rolling Stone magazine—that’s how much fun I was having. The work I was doing paid little and didn’t gain me any notoriety outside of my own little journalistic circle, but I was fulfilling what I felt was now a bit of a purpose in life: telling other people’s stories. I’m not sure how many people even read The Hub from week to week, but that didn’t matter. I was doing some good work and building a portfolio.
The second unexpected happening was when Cal Acosta called me to assist with the writing of a book he was authoring titled Remembering Robeson’s, which was about the historic Robeson’s Department Store in downtown Champaign. Similar to when Schmidt called during this period, I said yes immediately and to this day am proud to have helped with the Robeson’s book project. My dad was an integral part of the Robeson’s staff for more than a decade, and Acosta had heard I was a writer, just like him. He thought I’d be the ideal person to help him for certain parts of the book, and I’ll always be glad he reached out to me.
One of the interviewees I was assigned by Acosta to talk to for the Remembering Robeson’s book was a gregarious fellow named Ed Logan who, though I didn’t know his daughter Jill at the time of our interview, would one day become my father-in-law. (Jill and I got married about four years later.) We chatted on the phone about his days in the mid-1960s when, as an employee of Pepsi, he would stock the Robeson’s vending machines, luncheonette, and warehouse with the soft drink. Logan’s efforts earned him several invitations to laid-back dinners with around ten people at the Robeson’s warehouse. As I wrote in Remembering Robeson’s, all Logan “had to bring was himself and a case of Pepsi.” Others brought bottles of wine and, according to my former father-in-law, who passed away in 2013, “It was a grand time.”
The Hub folded not long after I joined its staff, which was a shame because I’d stopped working at the Mahomet Citizen to dedicate all of my freelance writing efforts toward the former publication. But by this time I had built up a solid repertoire of stories and was gaining confidence in my ability as a writer. I decided to reach out to Illinois Alumni magazine on the Illinois campus to see if that publication needed a freelance scribe, and it turned out it did. After writing a few articles at Illinois Alumni, where I learned more about composing stories than I ever had up to that point, thanks to editor Bea Pavia, I discovered that the Alumni Association needed a web content specialist in its communications department. I applied for the job and got it. And because Pavia knew I liked writing, she told me I could continue to pen stories for Illinois Alumni, which I did for the next seven years, until moving on to the College of Education, where I wrote many online articles about the college and its students and alumni.
These were good days for me; things were clicking. But I wish I’d begun my journalism career by writing for The Sentinel during my time at Centennial High School in Champaign. Doing so would have changed the course of my high school career and life.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the confidence to try my hand at journalistic articles as a freshman in college at Eastern Illinois University, either, due to a lack of confidence. Not committing to journalism at that time is one of my biggest regrets in life because it set me back both from a career and personal standpoint. Writing stories early on and honing those skills would have given me immeasurably improved self-assurance and steered me toward a more focused career path after college.
Not committing to journalism at that time is one of my biggest regrets in life because it set me back both from a career and personal standpoint. Writing stories early on and honing those skills would have given me immeasurably improved self-assurance and steered me toward a more focused career path after college.
But I now have a master’s degree in journalism, so things worked out.
A few months after earning my master’s degree, I wrote a novella titled The Newspaperman, which I published in January of 2018. A year prior to that, I reached out to Patrick Singer at Smile Politely, who was kind enough to let me write a few literary journalism pieces for the online publication. One of them, “A Soldier of the ‘Blues,’” was about a local musician named Kevin Elliott. I interviewed Elliott and afterward watched him play a show in the Great Hall of WEFT radio station. I thought the piece was one of the best I’d ever written and was one that Professor Walt Harrington, my mentor in graduate school, would be proud of.
One of the reasons I think the Elliott article works is because the narrative contains an on-the-spot conflict and has a noticeable beginning, middle, and end to it, all good elements in longform journalism. Plus, I was able to reward readers in the end with a resolution to Elliott’s predicament. Here’s the first paragraph of the article:
Musician Kevin Elliott is not a blues artist, but he’s going to try his hardest to sound like one tonight. Weirdly enough, his week-and-a-half-long cold that has affected his voice, and a right ear he currently can’t hear out of, may assist him.
There’s the conflict, right up front: this poor grizzled-sounding singer who is sick and has to get through an acoustic show that will be played live on the radio. I was able to capture in the piece some good banter between Elliott and WEFT DJ Bob Paleczny, who tries to give the singer support by telling him his cold has given him a “blues voice.”
The article shifts between Elliott’s live performance and general information about the musician’s life. This is how I remember all of the good stories being crafted in Walt Harrington’s class. Elliott was 60 years old at the time and had had an interesting life, so it’s not as if the entertainment value of the story went down as I took readers away from the impending WEFT show and what happened during it.
Complementing Elliott’s concert was a whole lot of artwork being featured in the Great Hall that weekend as part of the Boneyard Arts Festival. Elliott’s music, the hanging images, the tables with food and drinks all over them, and the towering shelves filled to the brim with CDs made for an arty, festive atmosphere in the small space, all of which I wrote about in the piece.
The article resolves with Elliott successfully getting through the show, with his wife joining him to sing the final song. Here’s the concluding paragraph:
Elliott plays the song “Patterns of Blue,” and then ends the evening with “Impressions,” sung with his wife, whose melodious voice supports her husband’s to the finish line. For a few minutes, under the array of rock-band names, Elliott is no longer a solo artist.
I’m not the world’s most romantic guy, but I love that ending. Elliott told me later via email that he liked the article a lot, which was great to hear. In a short period of time, I’d come a long way from my despondent days in Walt Harrington’s class, when I felt as if I didn’t have it in me to become a worthy literary journalism writer. Confidence is key, a must in any walk of life, but so is humility.
I’ll close with this: George Will wrote a piece titled “His Neighbors Just Liked to Hear Him Talk” in the Mansion section of the September 17, 2021, edition of The Wall Street Journal. In it, he relates his time as a boy growing up in Champaign, calling the town “an idyllic place” in the 1950s. He wrote, “The land in Champaign was absolutely flat. There were no impediments to the horizon, no limits to how far you could travel and no obstacles to what you could do, aspirationally.”
What a beautiful, metaphorical way to view the landscape of an area that most people perceive as mundane and limiting. Journalists span the world, writing important stories every day. Some of these articles entertain, and some of them spread knowledge. Journalism is not dead, and the basics of the craft can never expire.
What a beautiful, metaphorical way to view the landscape of an area that most people perceive as mundane and limiting.
If the news of the world and the lives within it mean something to you, learn real journalism, in all its forms. And then go out and write stories that matter.