This is an abbreviated version of a speech that I delivered at the University of Mississippi to an audience of future shot callers (journo-preneurs).
LESSON 1 – Be adventurous.
LESSON 2 – Don’t let your enthusiasm cloud your judgment. Slow down or you could become the next day’s front-page news.
A former NABJ president always says people who fail to plan – plan to fail.
LESSON 3 – Set short term and long-term goals. Make contact with people who can get you where you want to be. I resisted the temptation of taking a producer position because I wanted to be on the air.
LESSON 4 - Never settle.
LESSON 5 – Have fun on your way to the top. And if you meet a nice guy or girl and they don’t mind moving around the country with you, get married. Many women my age who are in the business don’t have children.
Know the difference between a big baller and a shot caller.
A shot caller can hire you or pick up the phone and get you a job.
A big baller makes great money. For example, he can say honey pack your bags, I just bought us round-trip first-class tickets to Paris for a few days.
A shot caller picks up the phone, calls the pilot and says get the jet ready. We’re flying to Paris, and let’s stop in Barcelona. I’d like to spend some quiet time on my yacht and a week at the castle in Malta.
LESSON 6 – Don’t be lazy. Any reporter can cover the news. The best reporters break news.
I had fun doing all kinds of wild stories in Birmingham, including one story that remains an unsolved mystery.
A few years ago, someone sent an email to the newsroom in Birmingham. It was an email from the school superintendent’s office. It said one of his students did not return from a senior trip. I called the superintendent’s office and the school principal. A few hours went by and neither returned my call. So, I went to the school and went to the principal’s office. His assistant told me had just left for the day but a counselor may have details about the senior trip. I went to the counselor and asked her about the email and reports of a missing student.
She turned white as snow and told me the school did not sanction the senior trip. I pressed her for more information and she gave me the number of the travel agent who booked the trip.
I called the travel agent and she told me her business partner was still in Aruba. There was another clue. Most of the students were already back home. I called an Alabama congressman and his office told me he heard there was a student missing, but he did not have a formal request from her family to get involved.
Throughout the day, I followed up with the congressman’s office. Just before the 5 o’clock show started, the congressman himself called me back and confirmed a high school grad by the name of Natalee Holloway was indeed missing. My station was the first to get the story on the air. My persistence paid off.
LESSON 7 - Strive to be first on every story. The early bird really does get the worm. The second may get his leftovers. And if you keep coming in third, you or your boss eventually gets fired.
LESSON 8 - Change sucks, but it doesn’t have to drain you.
LESSON 9 - All shot callers don’t have planes or corner offices. They do have crystal balls.
LESSON 10 - Whenever you think about giving up on something or someone, work harder than you’ve ever worked and sleep on it for 30 days if you can. Then make your move.
Before I made my move, this old dog learned new tricks.
I also knew things and people that no one else in the newsroom knew.
LESSON 11 – Cover a beat that no one understands or wants. Have a niche.
Know how to network and cultivate sources.
Spend some time in the sales department or going to lunch with sales people. They’ll tell you how the company is really doing.
Instead of always talking to public information officers, get to know the crime scene workers or the coroner. They know where the bodies are buried.
Some of the best flirts in the world go far in this business.
Find out where politicians and shot callers drink.
LESSON 12 – The more they drink, the more they leak. But protect your sources and maintain strong ethics. You’ll earn a good reputation that could someday pay off especially if you suddenly find yourself out of a job.
As an entrepreneur, I still work hard, but I play hard. I can finally take vacation during Sweeps. Remember, successful entrepreneurs solve problems.
LESSON 13 - Decide now.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
What’s your dream job?
Are you driven by money?
Are you driven by power?
I was driven by power. The media can change people’s lives.
Will you be happy driving a Toyota and owning a 3-bedroom home?
Do you want to live in a tony neighborhood, travel abroad, and give your kids a great education? Do you want your name on a building?
Do you want to anchor in a top 20 market? Own your own business? Be editor of the New York Times? Rupert Murdoch’s apprentice? Reality tv star? Sales executive? Pundit?
LESSON 14 - You find many big ballers and shot callers in journalism
at conventions and awards dinners. If you’re not a member of NABJ - SPJ – RTDNA – PRAM – you’re missing an opportunity for a one-on-one meeting with a shot caller.
Every year I would go to conventions and show news directors my work. I’d take their advice. A news director told me to get braces. I did.
Remember, tv is a visual medium.
Care about the quality of your work.
Care about the community that you’re covering.
Don’t put things on Facebook that will make your mother or minister blush.
LESSON 15 - Unless you have a trust fund, your credibility is all that you have in this world and you can’t afford to blow it.