Lessons learned early have stuck with me as a journalist

Published 10:05 am Thursday, February 23, 2017

Coming up in the newspaper business, I’ve learned a great deal. Sometimes those life lessons were the result of mistakes, while others were the result of experience from colleagues.

I was a wet-behind-the-ears “sports guy” at The Valley Times News in Lanett, Alabama, when veteran newspaperman Johnny Kuykendall took me under his wing and showed me the ropes on becoming a journalist devoted to covering the community you lived in. He taught me how a journalist treated their subject, getting to the truth of the matter and doing so with respect and dignity. He also showed me the importance of ethics and civility when a reader or subject of an article didn’t agree with me about a piece I had written.

Of course, this was in a time prior to the Internet and social media when actions like civility, respect and ethics meant something. Nowadays, it seems social media has become a free-for-all reflective of the current status of a divided country.

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Despite that, I have always kept those foundation principles as a journalist and have made a concerted effort to always keep my personal beliefs and feelings separate from the subject I was writing about as a journalist. For the most part, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of differentiating the two and be an unbiased observer chronicling a community.

I only spent a year working with Kuykendall before I headed to Picayune and met my mentor who would change my life and my career.

Tom Andrews was the advertising director at the Picayune Item when I came on board in 1990 and was one of the first people I met in a town where I knew no one. We were not only co-workers but soon became fast friends in a friendship that has lasted more than 25 years.

Tom knew everyone in town and quickly I was introduced through Tom to many folks in the community. But Tom introduced me to more than just people. Even though he was an “ad guy” he had a great understanding of the newspaper business and we collaborated on several projects together.

Tom eventually became the publisher of the newspaper and under his guidance, I learned the inner workings of the newspaper business, as well as dealing with the editorial side of the newspaper.

On occasion, there were members of the community who would find ways to get under my skin for a story I would write, or complain about lack of coverage or any other number of issues that arise in this business. When I was younger, I would want to fire back at those individuals rather than accept their public ridicule and it was Tom who taught me to be patient and understanding rather than fly off the handle and lash out.

One thing that always stuck with me was something he said once following a public outburst from someone in the community directed at me, even though the story I had written was accurate and truthful. Tom told me “Count to 10 before you ever respond.”

That has always been in the back of mind in my 25-plus newspaper career and I believe in the times we live in now, it is great advice.

So before you decide to lash out at someone on social media, think about the ramifications it will have and the consequences of your comments. Make sure you won’t regret later what you are about to post on Facebook or tweet on Twitter. We are all entitled to our opinion, but just remember that comment will live with you and you will have to live with that comment.

Thank you my mentors for the lessons you taught me.

Rob Sigler is managing editor of The Oxford EAGLE. Contact him at rob.sigler@oxfordeagle.com.