A couple rainy Seattle winters ago, I walked into KING-TV chief photojournalist Scott Jensen’s office and said, “You know, working with [unnamed] is really not working out for me. We can’t get on the same page and [he/she] is really struggling. I’d rather not have work with [him/her].” I distinctly remember a one-eyebrow raise and a glare. “Uh-oh, he’s pissed,” the words passed through my head.
“Why would you ever say something like that?”, Jensen barked. “That’s all the more reason you should work with [unnamed]. Your job is to make them look good”, he added. “Use your skill to lift them up, teach, and make our station look the best it can possibly be. And for that, you should be expecting to work with [unnamed] more often.”
That conversation didn’t go as planned.
Jensen’s office resembles somewhat of an Alaskan igloo encased in gold statues, and I had walked out into the cold a more weak & humbled man.
After work, I bought a six pack of Alaskan Pale Ale. It was a few beverages and some deep thought that went late into the night when I realized one of my most valuable lessons; this is not about me. “Work to better your colleagues and you will be better for yourself”, I thought. Jensen couldn’t have been more right. It was the first step, call it a leap, to becoming a chief photojournalist.
Scott Jensen did not supply me with my first “talk”. (You can ask my previous chief) And this “talk” is not one Jensen is unfamiliar with.
“When I was Director of Photography at KARE-TV”, said Brett Akagi, “I recall a similar conversation with a talented photojournalist on my staff. You may have heard of him before. Does Scott Jensen ring a bell?”
Get out! The KING-TV chief also has a secret of his own.
“There was definitely a time in my career when I was a total jerk”, Jensen leaked.
“I pulled Scott into the office of my news director, Tom Linder,” Akagi recalls. “I can’t remember what tipped the scales.”
“It was 2001 at KARE. The assignment desk went out of their way to move the schedule around for me to go shoot a few days for a story I pitched.” After a discussion at the desk, the gifted KARE photojournalist walked off as if he expected it. “I never said, ‘Thank you’,” he confessed. “That pissed a lot of people off.”
Jensen continued, “When you get wrapped up in your work, you ignore or become inconsiderate of the people you work with. That’s a problem.”
“That conversation with Scott changed him for the better”, Akagi believes. “As a manager at three different newsrooms, I’ve ‘helped’ a lot of people with this, but I’m no saint.”
Wait? Not a saint. Could it be?
“I thought I was great and let everyone know it”, Akagi recalls himself bragging to classmates after coming off a successful internship in Great Bend, Kansas. “Great Bend! Seriously?”, he laughs with his infamous loud chuckle in disbelief.
Funny how these things come full circle.
“You’re acting like a jackass”, Fort Hays State instructor Mike Leikam criticized. Akagi is now an instructor himself and proclaims, “I’m no better than anyone else. That one conversation set me on a better course. I need to earn respect through my every day work and not just from past performance. Everyone at some point will need an attitude adjustment.”
Akagi pointed out that Jensen and I certainly shared the same internal struggle; how to contain one’s passion to be a great storyteller.
For much of my career, managers and fellow co-workers would probably tell you I was a passionate storyteller. Early on, they also would tell you, I let my passion torment me and probably some of them too. I wanted so badly to be great that it spoiled my experiences and damaged some relationships. Every day I came in I expected to tell an award winning story, and every day I did not (almost every day) I went home miserable. Even the year I finished runner-up in the national photographer contest, I was miserable. I didn’t even enjoy a year I was recognized in the highest. Figure that out?
Truth be told, I loved my job and hated it equally as much. I had a decision to make — change my attitude or find a new career path.
Well that was an easy decision. I love this too damn much.
I spent every day after this realization learning how to contain my passion by bottling it up and letting it out in controlled doses… one I think people can handle. Those practices came with shortfalls, trust me. And I also practice something I thought I never could — letting go. It’s OK that my story was dropped today, it’s OK that I had to run to breaking news, so what if the reporter tanked the script, and it’s fine that I didn’t win NPPA Photographer of the Year. None of that stuff matters. I started asking myself this question, “Was I a good teammate and did I make the people around me better?” We cannot undervalue having a positive relationship with everyone humanly possible in the newsroom. It will be easier to reach your goals if you do value it.
A clear mind is critical to being a great storyteller and I feel better at my job when I have one. You’ll be a better person outside of work as well. I’ll attempt to quote Benjamin Harrison, Indiana’s only U.S. President, “Ask yourself each morning you wake up, ‘What good am I going to do today?’ And before you go to bed, ‘What good did I do today?” Most days you will find this “good” may not be your best piece of storytelling and it is no less valuable.
Work on bettering yourself first and foremost, master great technique, be a good citizen, along with building a wider base of overall journalism knowledge so you can better understand your colleagues. It’s bigger than your story. Storytelling is just one thing that we do. And remember, nothing will dictate the outcome of your career success more than your attitude.
“Come on in and sit down.” The best (and worst) six words in a person’s career.
“You are capable of achieving great things,” Akagi lectured Jensen, “but remember that you’re part of a staff of photographers and editors that work just as hard as you. Be respectful of your peers. How do you want to be remembered?”
Certainly not as “Matt Mrozinski the jerk”.