When Carol Thompson was lining up to declare her major as a freshman at Michigan State, she doubted whether she wanted to sit in a classroom, doing the same thing every day.
This doubt pushed her to change her mind from an education major to journalism.
After more than a decade of working at newspapers in three different states across the midwest, it’s safe to say she made the right choice.
Thompson is a 2012 Michigan State University school of journalism graduate who attended MIPA events in her childhood.
As the MIPA 2023 summer workshop’s Sunday night keynote speaker, she got to come full circle and speak to MIPA students about her career and what she’s learned about the journalism industry.
“The job is an absolute grind. It is an absolute slog. It is tough, the work is stressful. It’s not great. The job market is miserable,” Thompson said. “But every year I do it, I think I’m glad I did that.”
Thompson started out her journalism career working for an online publication, the Great Lakes Echo, covering the Great Lakes and their ecosystems.
From there, she worked on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan, covering the lakes and anything else that might happen in a small midwest town, from township commission meetings to protests over a motel being built.
Returning to Michigan, Traverse City was her next stop, covering crime, local government and more environmental issues.
“Traverse City, that’s where I learned to be brave, not only with my editors, but also around public officials who like to be intimidating,” she said.
Thompson said the only way to learn to deal with intimidating people, as well as how to be gentle with those who have been hurt, is through practice.
“On the flip side, I also learned how to be gentle with people who’ve been hurt and wound up in the news,” she said.
Pennsylvania was Thompson’s next stop, Allentown, between Philadelphia and New York City. Here, she learned the value of being in the newsroom and on the scene.
“If you have the chance to work in the newsroom instead of working remotely you should take that chance. You suck it up like a sponge when you’re sitting in the room,” Thompson said. “You also should get out of your desk so long as getting out of your desk gets you into the field and into where the action is happening. You want to be in the center of the action.”
The Lansing State Journal was her final stop before her newest and longest tenured position at The Detroit News. Being a journalist is a tough job with a lot of responsibility, but she says there are ways to make it easier.
“It’s a really tough job and you have a lot of responsibility. Democracy is on your shoulders,” Thompson said. “The best way to get good at this or feel confident doing journalism is to do it, so anytime you get a chance, you should take it.”
According to Thompson, difficulty often leads to positive change.
“Being a journalist will change you and hopefully in good ways. I can think of ways that it has been good for me” Thompson said. “For example, when I was a student journalist at MIPA camp, the thought of standing in front of rows of people with a microphone would make me turn into a puddle. I never would have done this.”
According to Thompson, many journalists face the common issue of finding stories that are not only true, but worthy of coverage. To Thompson, stories can come from anyone from a neighbor to someone who wasn’t even talking to you in the first place.
“You should eavesdrop. Open your ears. If you’re in the lunchroom or the library, just listen to what’s going on,” Thompson said. “That in itself is not news, but it gives you a place to go. Keep your ears open.”
When one does get a story that’s worth covering, the result can change the community and change lives for the better, according to Thompson.
“When you get a good story, you do a good job and something changes because of it, there’s no feeling in the world like that,” Thompson said.
While journalism certainly can change lives, according to Thompson, common critiques of the industry are the lack of pay, and that the industry as a whole is “dying.”
While Thompson admits the journalism job market is a mess, the experiences you gain from being a journalist offset the lack of money and more than make up for it.
“I think you’ll find that there are other fields that are easier to find jobs, like if you were a software engineer or something,” Thompson said. “But journalism is a really cool job experience and it’s good for other things. The opportunities that you have as a journalist are pretty awesome.”
Amongst the many pieces of advice Thompson has for MIPA students is to shoot high. It’s especially true for Thompson, but it can be attributed to anyone in any field.
“I wish I would have shot higher,” Thompson said. “I should have applied for bigger jobs and had the self confidence to really push myself.”