Walk into a newsroom of journalists and you will smell coffee brewing and see people rushing for their 14th bathroom break of the day. You will see “a business of the heart and soul.” You will see a business “about people and why they do what they do, and what it all means.”
That’s how Jack Smith, 72-year-old former newspaper reporter and editor, described it to 30 visiting students from Auburn and Opelika high schools on the Auburn University campus Wednesday. Smith, who retired 10 years ago as the head of Mass Media Services, spoke at the Society for Professional Journalism-sponsored event. He told his story of a life in journalism to help the students understand what the business might be like for them.
While growing up, Smith waited every day for the mail carrier to pull up in his 1939 Ford and drop the newspaper off. “I’d read and study every issue, sometimes for hours on end,” he said. The stories and design of the paper began his fascination with journalism.
His initial route when he went to college wasn’t journalism though. He first wanted to become a civil engineer until someone told him the amount of math and physics involved. He then transferred to the business school, eventually making the move to journalism. Paul Burnett, standing on the same podium as Smith did during his speech, inspired him while he was in college.
Smith walked up the steps to his first job at the Montgomery Advertiser earning $50 a week. His first assignment was to rewrite an article on Martin Luther King Jr.
He told the students that you have to love journalism and work hard at it. “Those seemingly meaningless stories could be just as important as a story on the font page.”
A journalist hears and sees some of the harsher stories in life, and then must report them to the world. “Images of lawyers arguing, families weeping, realizing this is the real world,” Smith described. He recounted a story of a mother pleading for her son’s life as he was placed in an electric chair.
He said the stories are sometimes positive too. “Hearing someone tell you that man would one day land on the moon,” or the little old lady desperately trying to get a meeting announcement on the front page were both parts of the job.
He told the students that it is a job that they have to be eager to go and do all again the next day.
“I’m glad I didn’t decide to build the Golden Gate Bridge or take Wall Street by storm,” Smith said. That wouldn’t have landed him a job that is so near his heart. For him, the sweat and agony in the life of a journalist was worth every moment.