Karen Pensiero’s address at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Dec. 2023 commencement

Karen Pensiero

Karen Pensiero, BJ ’85, former managing editor and 38-year veteran of the Wall Street Journal, delivered the alumni address at the Missouri School of Journalism’s winter commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 16.

President Choi, Dean Kurpius, esteemed faculty members, family, guests and graduates,

I am delighted to be here with you to mark this occasion today and to celebrate with you all. Graduates, congratulations on your academic and professional achievement!

This campus, this university and this town were a key part of the foundation of my life and they hold a special place in my heart.

My family moved here from Warrensburg, Missouri, just in time for me to start my sophomore year at Hickman High School, which had a tremendous journalism program under a wonderful, inspirational  woman named Minerva Howard.

So many of my fondest memories are from my time here, on campus. Like you, I had wonderful professors who shared their passion for journalism and were so generous with their teaching and guidance. People like Daryl Moen, Jane Clark, Jeanne Abbott, Bryan Brooks, Don Ranley, Kevin Catalano and Karen List, to name a few. Individually and collectively, they supported me and prepared me for what I needed to do next.

My time at the J-School and my bachelor’s degree in journalism from this school signaled to newsrooms and editors across the U.S. — around the globe, actually — that I was trained in the Missouri Method, that I had experience in a real newsroom, reporting and editing real copy for a community of readers that went far beyond the traditional audience of a student newspaper, like at most other journalism schools. That was priceless.

The same is true for you. Your degree itself will open doors for you. While the degree alone will not get you the job or keep you in the job,… the skills, experience and knowledge acquired here make you very well equipped to be enormously successful in those things, as well.

So many of my fondest memories are from my time here, on campus. Like you, I had wonderful professors who shared their passion for journalism and were so generous with their teaching and guidance.

Most of my most vivid memories and learning moments came from my time at the Missourian. I was a teaching assistant in the newsroom my senior year when the newsroom and presses were at the other end of the Quad in what was then called the Neff Hall Annex, or just “the Missourian.” Dean Kurpius, I know it was a dump and turning it into a parking lot was probably a higher and better use for the real estate, and building an integrated newsroom for all platforms was right journalistically and for the students’ future, but for me, the Old Missourian, it was magical — absolutely magical.

Back in those days, as the last page of the next day’s Missourian finally made it out of the composing room, was burned onto a metal plate, carefully but quickly loaded onto the printing press – just like in the movies — the teaching assistant ran downstairs to pull one of the first copies off the press, along with the pressmen, like the wonderful Bruce Moore, who retired earlier this year as the Missourian’s circulation manager after a 40-year career. And we grabbed those papers and flew through the pages to check to make sure there were no glaring problems that would require a press stop and replate — like an upside down photo, or crooked copy or a bad headline. I can’t tell you how much — one day my senior year — the faculty editors of the Missourian and I — and likely the dean at the time —  wished that I had caught the typo in the glaringly large type in a skybox on the top of page one that teased an inside story about red-shirt athletes. You see, we were late locking up the paper and I “helped” the sports desk by writing their skybox. When the papers hit the driveways of subscribers the next morning around Boone County, imagine their surprise to learn that MU didn’t have red-shirt athletes but  — sorry, Mom — they had red-shit athletes. In my haste, I had dropped the letter R from the word “shirt.”

OK, so what’s the lesson?  Well, there are many. But what’s the most important lesson: It’s better to be late or miss a deadline or get beaten on a story than to be wrong or to introduce a stupid error. Now, a typo in a skybox isn’t the end of the world. In those pre-digital days, the paper would be used to line a cat-litter box or bottom of the bird cage later in the week, so the mistake wasn’t long remembered, except by me. But the underlying principle of the lesson applies in far more serious, far more important matters in our profession. Don’t rush to publish if you’re not certain your story is right and fair to all affected by it. If you remember nothing else about what I say today, remember that.

But, while I have the floor, I’d like to briefly share a few other lessons I’ve learned during this wonderful career so far. Many were learned here, most probably during my time at the Journal, and some of them were learned the hard way. The Hard Way is an excellent teacher, it seems.

  1. Ask for help when you don’t know how to do something. There are many, many people in your life and at your next job who are very invested in your success. Sometimes you can get away with faking it, but often you can’t and the consequences can be serious. An example: We once had an intern at the Journal who was sent out on the first hot day of the summer to get anecdotes for a story to be published in our Greater New York section about how people were coping with the heat. She was sent to Coney Island, Rockefeller Center and Central Park. Her editor was surprised when she came back much sooner than expected with her reporter’s notebook full of really excellent quotes and stories. But they seemed really too excellent and complete, and she did it just too quickly. The editor began googling the source names in the notebook and could not find a single one. I was the Journal’s Standards Editor at the time, and the editor called me to share her concerns and seek my guidance. To make a long story short, the intern — who had EVERYTHING going for her – finally told us that she didn’t know how to get people to speak on the record with her, so she made up their names. So, she lied — to her editor and it would have been a lie to readers, without the very sharp instincts of the editor who stopped the quotes from making it into the story. Turns out, though, that she had done the same thing in an earlier story that was published. It was a career-ending mistake just three weeks into her career. The lessons: Don’t ever lie – to your sources, your readers, your boss, your colleagues. AND ask questions if you don’t know how to do something. Again, people are invested in you and your success. They won’t and don’t expect you to know how to do everything. Ask and they will help you and they will teach you.

  2. Remember that wise people with important things to teach you are everywhere. Valuable lessons don’t just come from bosses or senior editors or advertising executives or corporate communications vice presidents. At the Missourian, I learned a great deal about newsrooms and deadlines and human nature and teamwork, especially from a composing room employee named Jim Brown, a man about my parents’ age who was crusty on the outside but warm and caring and a total softie on the inside. One evening, as I failed to close out the final page on time, blowing right through the deadline, Jim yelled — and I mean yelled — out the composing room door into the newsroom: “Hey, Karen, this ain’t no weekly, and I don’t mean W-E-E-K-L-Y!” One of his favorite lines that I heard from time to time. And then he’d add:  “Move the damn page!” But, don’t be fooled by the yelling and harsh tone, nobody at this school loved the Missourian more and took more pride in it, or in me, I think, than Jim Brown — just one of the school’s unsung heroes, a rock to me during school, who became a friend for life until his death in 2018. So, I urge you to be curious and pay attention to the people who cross your path, and consider yourself lucky for anything and everything that they share with you. And remember as you head out into the “working world”: You can’t win that Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting if the FOIA documents you requested aren’t delivered to your desk. Journalism is a team sport. Be humble and be gracious to everyone, the mailroom guy who brings your the documents and to the woman who gets the publishing system back up and running on the holiday weekend and to the cleaning staff in the office. It takes the entire team to support you and to serve readers, listeners, viewers and clients and, yes, to help you win that award.

  3. This is a competitive business, always has been and is maybe even more so now. But cream does rise to the top. Work hard, and at the risk of seeming insensitive, out of touch or old, I’ll say this: Be prepared to show up early and stay late.

  4. Seek out and listen to people who hold different opinions than you. Your theories and ideas and, yes, your biases, need to be tested and challenged — your whole life long. It’s an important way that we learn and grow. And if you’re going to be a reporter, and you’re not doing advocacy journalism, then I encourage you to seek to achieve objectivity, to set aside your preconceptions about a topic because actually what you think is irrelevant. You can’t assume that you have all the answers at the beginning. Actually, you may not even know all of the questions to ask. Do your reporting, find the facts and do so in a fair, thorough, open-minded and rigorous way. Get as close to the truth as you can. Strive for objectivity, not balance.

  5. Always practice this trade with the clearest and highest ethical code. Doing the right thing is never wrong, and doing the wrong thing is never right. Ethics matter. Trust takes forever to earn yet can be lost in an instant.

Today is the end of one chapter of your unique life book and the beginning of another chapter. You’ve likely written a draft in your imagination of how you think or hope that this and future chapters will go — my guess is that you’ve likely written several drafts.

The University of Missouri School of Journalism has given you the tools you need to be a success in this ever-changing, exciting, nerve-wracking, wonderful, essential, essential profession. Regardless of which track you took here or what platform you work on, make the world a better place through your work. That’s why you’re doing this, right?

Here’s my final advice to you. Be open and prepared to rip up every one of those drafts to shreds as real life offers up new characters, settings and story lines. In my role at the Journal of hiring journalists and offering career counseling, young journalists frequently wanted me to map out their careers in great detail:  In six months, I’ll be a reporter covering economics and then in 18 months I’ll edit from DC, and then in 18 months, I’ll move to Tokyo, etc, etc.

Instead, I suggest that you have a general idea of where you believe you want to go, but be open to interesting detours or opportunities. Here’s an analogy I often use. I love to vacation in Austria. When I plan a vacation there, I know that I’ll fly into Zurich and I’ll depart, say, 10 days later from Vienna. I may book a hotel for the first and last nights, but rarely for the nights in between. Why? Because if my husband, Jim, and I are driving along a road, and we look off to the south and we see a beautiful village that’s calling us with unknown adventures, we can’t turn down that road to see what awaits if we’ve already booked our next hotel straight down the road we’re currently on.

You’re starting a grand adventure! This is your trip to Austria! Be open to turning off the road to an unexpected destination. I can guarantee you that is where you will find some of your most rewarding times and experiences. That is where you will find tremendous growth. That may be where do you some of your best work.

The University of Missouri School of Journalism has given you the tools you need to be a success in this ever-changing, exciting, nerve-wracking, wonderful, essential, essential profession. Regardless of which track you took here or what platform you work on, make the world a better place through your work. That’s why you’re doing this, right?

You’re part of a very proud tradition, and how you practice your trade matters. Always remember, you’re a Missouri J-School grad, and the world will expect much from you because of that.

I wish you all the best of luck. You have wonderful opportunities ahead of you. Congratulations on earning your degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Updated: December 20, 2023

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