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Sam Donaldson, right, arrives at the Daily Lobo Journalism Boot Camp on Saturday. Donaldson served as the keynote speaker during the conference, which included panels and sessions for students interested in pursuing journalism.
Sam Donaldson, right, arrives at the Daily Lobo Journalism Boot Camp on Saturday. Donaldson served as the keynote speaker during the conference, which included panels and sessions for students interested in pursuing journalism.

Sam Donaldson kicks Boot Camp into shape

Award-winning reporter Sam Donaldson served as the keynote speaker during the conference, and he had a simple message for young journalists:

“Work really hard,” he said. “Beat the competition by doing the job better than they do. Just do your job.”

Donaldson, a native New Mexican, worked for ABC News for most of his nearly 50-year career. He was a White House correspondent for much of it, covering many historical political events including Watergate, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He has also interviewed “every president beginning with Lyndon Johnson through George W. Bush.”

Donaldson said that among the things his career taught him is that audiences respond differently to different stories.

“Because of the changes in technology and the way that audiences work, I learned what was interesting to people,” he said. “Some things you ought to tell people whether they think they want to hear it or not, but you also try to find things that do interest them.”

Donaldson also said young journalists should be aware of the constantly evolving state of news, and of the importance of being able to adapt to it.

He said that while money has always driven changes in the media industry, another ever-changing factor has brought new opportunities for journalists to utilize.

“Technology has brought us not just the internet, not just VCRs,” Donaldson said. “When I started at the network, there was none of that. You watched one of the three of us: ABC, CBS or NBC. You didn’t have a choice — there was no Twitter. You couldn’t get your news from Facebook. But now you do.”

He said future journalists are going to have to conduct their business in a very different way than he did.

“I can’t tell you how you’re going to do it,” he said, “or what tools you’re going to use, or what you’re going to have to do in order to attract an audience. But it’s going to be different.”

Kimm Oostman, a graduate student in communications who attended the lecture, said she was impressed by the scope of Donaldson’s career.

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“He has lived through a lot of amazing history,” Oostman said. “He was really good at sharing those stories and turning them into lessons to teach all of the people who were listening.”

Those lessons had some recent examples. Donaldson emphasized the importance of accurate storytelling in an industry where every published piece and off-air comment is scrutinized, citing Rolling Stone and NBC’s Brian Williams as cautionary tales.

In November, Rolling Stone published a story on a gang rape by fraternity members at the University of Virginia. It was later revealed that the magazine didn’t perform due diligence as discrepancies and inaccuracies in the victim’s account began to be made public.

Williams is an NBC anchor caught in a firestorm after allegedly lying for years about being “in a helicopter hit by a grenade in 2003 during the Iraq war,” according to an article on Gothamist. He has since taken a leave of absence from the network.

“Find someone to tell you what is really going on,” Donaldson said. “Grab hold of the story and of the people telling it and rip flesh until you find out what the truth is.”

That truth — a pillar of the journalism industry — is what Donaldson advocated first and foremost. However, he also acknowledged that many of his biggest scoops, more often than not, came by a stroke of luck.

“It’s better to be, in my case, lucky than smart,” he said. “All my breaks have come because I’ve been lucky — it’s not because I’m a brilliant guy.”

Booking Donaldson to speak at the event happened mostly due to that very same luck.

One of the workshop coordinators said her husband ran into Donaldson at the grocery store several months back and talked to him about the workshop. Through some email exchanges, the coordinators were able to invite him to speak.

Boot camp organizer Kate Nash said she was glad students got the chance to learn some valuable lessons from such a seasoned professional.

“I thought it was important for our students to hear from someone of Sam’s stature and prominence in the journalism world,” Nash said. “I know I learned some interesting back stories about his time as a reporter covering issues of historical importance, and I think students did as well.”

While many professionals in the journalism industry preached technical and complex ways to stand out in the field during the weekend’s seminars, Donaldson’s philosophy was the most straightforward.

“If you’re not willing to give up a great measure of your family life, your private life, in pursuit of this business, don’t go into the business,” Donaldson said. “You won’t prosper, you won’t go forward. Just play it straight. You’ll get your Peabody; you’ll get your Pulitzer if you do it right.”

David Lynch is a staff reporter at The Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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