Friday, March 8, 2013

A Passion For Storytelling

I’ve had the beginning of March circled on my calendar for at least six months and here it was: the annual Ruhl Lecture and Grand Opening of Allen Hall 3.0 (above), a major renovation of the building that has been home to the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (UO SOJC) for nearly a century.

However, the Ruhl Lecture was the first order of business on Thursday, February 28, and this year’s featured speaker was none other than Ann Curry, NBC news correspondent, former Today Show host, proud UO alum, member of the UO SOJC Hall of Achievement, and former classmate of yours truly back in the mid-1970s.

A few years younger than me (a working stiff, I was on the five- to six-year plan in a four-year program as an undergraduate at UO, or about a year sooner than Bluto Blutarsky in “Animal House”), Curry is a native Oregonian from Ashland who began her broadcasting career at television stations in Medford and Portland.

Even though I knew that Curry was coming, Ruhl Lecture tickets went fast and I waited too long; it sold out a couple of weeks in advance. Fortunately, I discovered that she would be speaking to a Reporting II class taught by colleague Scott Maier right next door to my Strategic PR Communications class in the new “digital commons” on the third floor, which serves the focal point for the writing labs.

In a migration that could have been predicted, students flocked to 304 Allen, apropos for such a collaborative environment as the new digital commons. Curry was a hit with students -- articulate and genuine in sharing stories and answering questions from students. Afterward, she graciously posed for pictures with students and faculty.

We chatted briefly about the classes we were had together, and she reminded me of a memory long forgotten: Professor Jack Ewan’s propensity to lock the classroom door the very minute that class began; he had a no admittance policy for Johnny-come-lately’s. Happened to me just once, I confessed. Curry admitted that it happened to her, too, but perhaps more than once. We laughed.

As luck would have it, fellow instructor Anna Klyueva was unable to attend the Ruhl Lecture, so she gave me her ticket. The lecture -- an annual symposium named after Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Ruhl, a former editor and publisher of the Medford (Ore.) Mail Tribune -- features distinguished American journalists who speak about important issues in the field of journalism and communication.

The stage included two large screens featuring real time “tweets” about the event on Twitter: an interesting and -- at times, amusing -- sideshow to the lecture, particularly while we waited for the guest of honor to make her way into the Guistina Room at the Ford Alumni Center. As UO SOJC Dean Tim Gleason wryly noted: “Social media is a wonderful thing.”

Her lecture, titled “Journalism: An Act of Faith in the Future,” examined ethics, responsibility and the ability to affect change in the world through journalism. “Not everyone who is committed is crazy,” she noted to students in the audience. “Your commitment to journalism is not crazy, it’s courageous.”

Whether the focus is journalism, advertising or public relations, Curry encouraged students to “let your motivation be your motor” and “shine the light on the darkness.” She noted that she was “really impressed with the students” she met while speaking in two different journalism classes prior to the Ruhl Lecture.

“Journalism can be as messy as a street fight,” she emphasized. “What is most important is pressing, even fighting, for stories that matter and need to be told. Our job is to not tell people what to do or what to think, but to tell them the story. We do this not because it’s a job, but because we have a passion for telling the story.”

Well said. Or as writer Brandon Sanderson describes the process: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” Without a doubt, that is what she did.