During the Trump campaign, a lot of pundits were mocking journalists for not understanding “real Americans” as well as the pundits did. A dapper reporter from the LA Times tweeted about the pundits, “I’d pay ten bucks to watch one of these guys try to start a tractor.”
I scoffed. Silly West Coast reporter. I grew up on a farm. Tractors start like any other stick-shift vehicle, I told him.
Mr. LA responded, “I had old ones when I was growing up! Had to prime it and engage the clutch.”
I, like the pundits, was misunderestimating the redneck credentials of a big city journalist. We then shared tractor stories: My dad’s Farmall 656s from the 1960s, his dad’s Ford 8Ns from the 1940s. That was how I met Matt Pearce, became one of this 111,000 Twitter followers, and found out he was a Missouri boy. And it made my day when he agreed to speak at the JEMKC Awards Show last night.
Sometime between the tractor argument and last night, I got the impression Matt had always been a hotshot journalist. I was retelling the tractor argument to an English teacher and she said, “THE Matt Pearce? From Mizzou?!” You know Matt Pearce? “I know OF him!” I thought that meant he was known for his work on The Maneater. Nope, he was just a heckuva popular writer among English majors at Mizzou.
Matt told the audience his story: He grew up in tiny Cleveland, Missouri, and does not remember his high school even having a newspaper. He was in the band. He majored in English at Mizzou. Then, at age 24, he went back to Mizzou for his master’s in journalism and built up credentials at The Kansas City Star and The Pitch. He wanted to write 4,000-word pieces for Esquire, but he was covering crime instead.
He gave some insight to JEMKC’s young writers about the craziness of the journalism profession with his story about how he ended up in LA: When the Joplin tornado hit, he had the urge to drive down to help. Then he remembered he has a master’s in journalism. He sent notes to several major newspaper editors and said he’d freelance for whoever called him first. The LA Times won, Matt learned how to cover a tragedy by watching the professionals in Joplin, and then he worked his way up to being the national reporter for the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper, covering the celebrities and the homeless, the riots in Egypt and the white supremacists in America.
Matt told the audience, “You don’t get the money, but you get the story. And you get to know the world better every day, which is pretty cool.”
His advice to the young writers came from his father: “Don’t listen to advice.”
Also, “Slavishly imitate the people you like” and to not be afraid to strike up a conversation with a journalist you admire on Twitter.
My main takeaway from Matt’s talk was a reminder that the kids who are hotshot journalists at 16 aren’t always the future journalists. Even the star college journalists often do not stay in journalism. The editor-in-chief before me, the Kansas Collegiate Journalist of the Year, went straight into advertising. The chief after me, also the KCJOY, went straight into teaching. The talented sports co-editors were eager to be in public relations, the arts editor was called to be a Methodist preacher, and my edgy opinions editor now wears a tie in a cubicle doing something that seems dreadful.
Meanwhile, four of the beat reporters that always needed quite a bit of coaching and editing stayed with it and became professional journalists. And I’ve seen the same thing at Aquinas: my greatest chiefs never became journalists, but some quiet staffers with some flaws stuck with it.
During the awards show last night, I saw a girl go up for an award for the second or third time and the adviser behind me said, “She’s so quiet in class, you wouldn’t even know she was there.” But that adviser is a rockstar, who noticed the quiet girl’s gifts and kept working with her.
That’s what I grabbed from Matt Pearce’s journey from priming antique tractors in rural Missouri to being a national reporter at the LA Times: Even when a kid is dumped into our class because nothing else fits their schedule, seems disinterested and pushes back against news-style writing, we have to keep spreading the joys and mentality of journalism to all of our kids.