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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: An emotional trip home to teach storytelling to a new generation

As I stared at the faces of the young journalism students, I thought about their parents — and how concerned they must be.

Maybe it was because, at 56, I’m old enough to be the parent of three “zoomers” (shorthand for members of Generation Z). Or maybe because being back home in central California brought to mind that spring day in 1994 when I worked up the courage to have “the talk” with my own worried parents.

Can you imagine sending your kid 3,000 miles away to the Ivy League to be a lawyer, then having him come back and declare that he is instead becoming — gasp! — a writer? Or worse — bigger gasp!! — a journalist?

My poor parents must have wondered, “Where did we go wrong?”

I’ve been in journalism for nearly 35 years, and I just completed one of the best assignments I’ve had in a long time. I spent three days at Fresno State — about 20 minutes from the farm town where I grew up — as the inaugural “journalist-in-residence.” I was housed at the Institute for Media and Public Trust in conjunction with the mass communication and journalism department.

I spoke to six journalism classes and a 120 students. I also met with a few students one-on-one about their journalistic projects.

I won’t forget the young woman whose family has roots in Russia and plans to study in Spain next semester. While there, she expects to continue exploring her passion for songwriting.

Nor will I forget the young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) student from Honduras who got permission from U.S. officials to return to his home country to interview family members.

Another thing that stuck with me was their perceptive questions.

Do you have regrets? What has been the personal cost of your ambition? Should young journalists pay their dues in reporting jobs or jump straight to building their own brands? How do you control your emotions and approach a subject objectively? If you struggle at the beginning, how do you know when it’s time to hang it up and try something more practical?

The journalist-in-residence program gives students practical, real-world exposure to a working journalist who is still on the job. Or in my case, juggling seven to 10 jobs at once.

I wanted to help students build their personal brands and tell great stories, starting with the most important story of all: their own.

I told them that — whether they go into journalism or not — communicating clearly and writing with impact are crucial skills that will serve them well in any field. But I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether this was the best time to recruit young people into journalism or the worst. The story of today’s media landscape is complicated.

According to new polling by Gallup, only 32 percent of Americans report having “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence that the media reports the news in a manner that is full, fair and accurate. A record-high number of Americans (39 percent) say they don’t trust the media at all, a percentage that has been climbing steadily since 2018.

On the other hand, chaos often brings opportunity. The tumultuous media environment has produced new venues for content creators to display their work online and distribute it directly to consumers. Terrestrial talk radio is suffering, but podcasts are exploding. Some newspapers are going out of business, but newsletters have become ubiquitous.

Besides, I told the students, compensation can take different forms. When you decide to become a journalist, you don’t do it for the money. You do it for the places you’ll go, the people you’ll meet, the things you’ll see. You do it because you hate being bored and you don’t want to waste away in an office cubicle. You do it because you want life to be interesting.

In recent years, when I’ve gone back home, the experience has left my head spinning. Driving late at night through my hometown on the way to my hotel, I saw plenty of ghosts. For instance, all four of my grandparents lived in that town. They’re all gone now.

But this particular homecoming also filled my heart. What a privilege to teach college students who hail from small towns like mine about a subject I’m passionate about: storytelling.

I believe I gave the students at Fresno State a few things to think about. I know they had that effect on me.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com.

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