A Poynter column by Jill Geisler and a blog post by a George Mason University journalism student reminded me of a blog post I wrote more than seven years ago.
I strongly recommend reading Jill’s Don’t wait to thank someone great, in which she tells how Andy Potos and Jim Naughton shaped her career and why she is glad she expressed her gratitude before last August, when Naughton died and Potos suffered a brain injury.
I looked for some key quotes to use from Jill’s piece, but decided just to encourage you to read it. The best lines come near the end and they’ll have more power if you read them in context.
Then a blog post about a new webcast, Late Night Patriot, gave me some unexpected credit. I spoke almost a year ago to Steve Klein’s classes at George Mason and something I said helped prod Jake McLernon to work on his webcast idea. In a blog post by another Mason student, Ryan Weisser, Jake, also known as “Jolly J,” credited me:
“Buttry telling us that if you have an idea, you’ve got to work with it, just motivated me to start something new,” said McLernon, a senior majoring in communication from Herndon, Va.
I was pleased that I was able to give Jake a push. We don’t always hear from the people we are able to help with advice, motivation or instruction. I thanked Jake in a tweet and he responded.
@stevebuttry it’s been a while since then, but your presentation that day inspired me to try great things. I’m starting a morning news show.
— Jake McLernon (@JollyJPhotog) January 1, 2013
Jill’s post and the exchange with Jolly J brought to mind a blog post I wrote when I was writing a blog about newsroom training for the American Press Institute. Since those posts are no longer available at API’s site, I’ve been trying to rebuild the Training Tracks archive. So here’s my post, originally published July 15, 2005, about thanking mentors:
Many years ago, I spent some time covering agriculture. I remember quite a few farmers getting eloquent and a bit emotional talking about the satisfaction they felt in watching the seeds they planted in the spring grow into a mature crop.
Trainers, writing coaches, editors and other newsroom mentors sometimes don’t get that kind of satisfaction. Some of the seeds we plant blossom elsewhere. Or we move on before they do. Or we didn’t even notice where they took root. We may never see or learn what became of our advice or example. Life gets busy for us and the people we help and they or we forget to stay in touch.
I had a couple recent reminders of the way that the little things we do can have impact we don’t realize.
I should preface this with an apology if any of this seems like boasting. I don’t mean it that way. In fact, I think in both cases I didn’t do anything extraordinary. What I did was similar to things that thousands of editors, coaches and other mentors do every day in this business. But I was lucky to hear the impact of my work. So I share these stories in hopes that it might provide some encouragement if you’re wondering whether anything came of those seeds you planted.
I received an e-mail recently from Linda Caricaburu, assistant managing editor of the Great Falls Tribune in Montana. The name is distinctive enough that it looked familiar when it appeared in my inbox. And I did recall meeting an editor from Great Falls at one of the two conferences where she said we spoke. But I couldn’t place a face with the name. I wasn’t sure what we had spoken about.
In fact, Linda prefaced her note, saying, “you likely won’t remember this, but …” She was right. I remember that we spoke. I remember that she had some questions and I gave some answers. But this middle-aged memory can’t recall the details.
Linda enlightened me: “You gave me a very strong pep talk in Omaha about how I could take the lead in newsroom training and make a difference. I took your advice to heart – and you were right. So I’d like to thank you for sharing your tips and training materials with me. They’ve been a tremendous resource and I’m getting lots of positive feedback from the staff. Now reporters and editors are coming to me with requests for training sessions – something unheard of a few years ago. The editor is trying to restructure my job to allow more time for training and one-on-one coaching.”
I wish I could pass along to you whatever great wisdom or inspirational advice I gave to Linda. If I could remember it, I would. But I’ll pass along this observation: You can never tell the impact you have when you help another journalist. Something that is forgettable for you can be exactly what someone else needed to hear. I’ve given other versions of that pep talk to other people and I’m sure some of them found it tiresome or annoying.
Obviously Linda was ready to blossom as a training leader in her newsroom. Something I said connected with her need and gave her a boost in confidence. I’m delighted, if a little in the dark.
I’m proud of the six years I spent as an editor at the Kansas City Star and Times in the 1980s and early 1990s. I could list several reporters and editors for whom I might take more credit than I deserve for their success then and subsequently. I know I was a meaningful leader in their careers. I probably wouldn’t have included Joe Rebello on that list.
But Joe would. Again, you can never tell.
Joe was a student at the University of Kansas when I hired him to help as a stringer in our Lawrence bureau. He was a hard worker and an excellent reporter and writer. I know I gave a strong recommendation when another editor on another desk had an opening. Joe joined the staff and continued doing good work. We were friends then but lost touch over the years.
We reconnected recently and had dinner this week. I was touched when Joe told me, in gratifying detail that I won’t share here, how much I had helped him and how much I meant to him.
I think Joe was a talented young reporter who was headed to a successful career with or without my help. But the time was right to make a difference. Whatever leadership or advice I provided was more meaningful and memorable to him than it was to me.
That’s how leadership and mentoring and coaching work. You don’t often give “win one for the Gipper” speeches that deliver immediate and visible results. You plant seeds. You cultivate seeds someone else planted. But in the fast-moving news business, you often aren’t around when they blossom. If you ever learn that they blossomed, you may not even remember planting them.
But keep planting. They do blossom.
And when you hear thanks, and feel grateful for that, maybe you should thank some of those whose seeds yielded bounty in your career. So thanks. Thanks, Dave Witke. Thanks, Michael Gartner. Thanks, Jimmy Larson. Thanks, Chuck Offenburger. Thanks, Mrs. Shaw. Thanks, Mrs. Adams.