Letters Home: Stacy St. Clair

Stacy St. Clair is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
She graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism
in 1995 with a degree in print and digital news (formerly
called the news editorial sequence).
The following letter was submitted April 11, 2012

Dear ONA,

I’m told I should write this essay as if I were sending advice to my 20-year-old self. I hesitate to do that.

Because I don’t want to scare her – or any other J-School student -- away with the dark side of 21st-Century journalism.

The road ahead isn’t easy for the Old Me or her classmates in the news-editorial sequence. She’ll see her own newspaper go into bankruptcy protection and other storied publications fold. Time and again, she’ll watch talented journalists pack their desks after being laid off but it will never get any easier. And she’ll worry endlessly about what happens to democracy without a free and vibrant press.

It’s not the journalistic utopia the Old Me imagined in 1995, but I would never tell her that.

Because, God help me, I want her to stick with it.

Because, even with the incredible heartbreak, it will be an amazingly fulfilling ride.

She’ll witness history, as she covers presidential inaugurations, impeached governors and the Olympics. At both a mid-size newspaper and a big city daily, she’ll be given the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. With the dawn of the Internet age, she will realize that accurate, trustworthy reporting is more important than ever.

So, if I could talk to my 20-year-old self, I’d tell her that she’ll never fully appreciate the education she’s getting until she has been in the business for a few years. I’d encourage her to take convergence courses, but to never forget that good storytelling and dogged reporting transcend all mediums.

I’d assure her that she’ll survive that first semester at the Missourian, even though she thinks she won’t. I would urge her to pitch and write as many stories as possible because nothing will prepare her for the newspaper industry like the experience gleaned in Columbia. And, because I know the Old Me is worried, I’d tell her that Sharon Harl wasn’t exaggerating when she promised that no city editor would ever be as demanding as she was.

I also would admit that, unfortunately, the memory of horribly mishandling her first-ever interview with a murder victim’s family will still sting nearly 20 years later. She’ll think of it every time she covers a tragedy -- and that's a good thing. It will make her a better, more empathetic reporter.

Old Me would be well-advised to keep in touch with her classmates. They’ll be a lifeline throughout her journalism career, offering advice, encouragement, tips about job openings and a sympathetic ear. (They'll even edit this letter for her one day, to make sure she doesn't sound too neurotic.) Along those same lines, Old Me should get to know the Mizzou grads in her newsroom. I haven’t come across a newsroom without at least one other member of the Tiger Mafia. They’ll be an important resource, largely because they’ve been instilled with the same journalistic values and work ethic.

I’d tell her that getting a minor in Spanish will open countless doors for her journalistically, but she should spend less time reading Don Quixote and more time conversing. As a future general assignment reporter, it would help if she knew how to say “deadline,” “arraignment” and “suspect” in castellano.

I would tell her to embrace different writing styles, even the much-loathed inverted pyramid, because when the newsroom goes digital, no editor wants to wait around for her while she tweaks an anecdotal lede. Also: Be nice to copy editors, always double check the spelling of a source's name and keep extra gloves, a rain poncho and running shoes in her desk at all times. A large supply of Advil and gum wouldn't hurt either.

And, finally, I’d advise Old Me against picking Mizzou to go far in the newsroom’s NCAA tournament pool every year. She just winds up giving her dollar to the annoying KU grad in the office and it makes her nauseous.

This is what I would tell her.

And, God help her, she’ll stick it out.

Because that’s what journalists do. Especially when they have degrees from the University of Missouri.

Stacy St. Clair
BJ '95 Print and Digital News
Reporter, Chicago Tribune

Check out the rest of the Letters Home series

Editor's note: If you're a Mizzou journalism alum who would like to contribute to the Letters Home series, send us an email at onamizzou@gmail.com with your letter, your name, your sequence and graduation year, your current job and contact information.

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