Susan J. Demas: Knowing what you don’t know is one of the best lessons for journalists

September 19, 2019 5:53 am

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last week marked the 18th anniversary of 9/11. I will never forget listening to a couple Iowa hard rock DJs try and figure out what was going on after the first tower was hit — it almost sounded like a bad prank.

I was 24 and had just put in my two weeks notice for my job as a moving company receptionist with no real plan, other than I’d probably watched “Office Space” a few too many times and couldn’t imagine continuing to write emails on loss waivers for the rest of my life. But within days, I would start my career as a journalist at the second-largest paper in the state, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, during one of the most uncertain times in modern history.

I was just a lowly newsroom assistant, but I ended up covering the aftermath of 9/11 from the cornfields, having somehow persuaded my editors to let me report on the small Jewish and Muslim communities there, and would go on to cover the 2004 Iowa caucuses by volunteering for whatever story seasoned political reporters were too busy to write. It would take four more jobs before I wore down my boss enough to let me write a regular political column (yep, it’s a pattern), which has been one of the great joys of my life.

You might be expecting me to say I’ve never looked back, but that would be a lie.

The Iowa State Capitol | Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch

The truth is if it weren’t for my first editor, Lyle Muller, taking on chance on me — someone with no journalism degree or internships to speak of — I might still be writing memos for executives instead of my own stories. None of us get where we are on talent alone, and I’ve never understood those who won’t admit how much good luck (and usually good connections) matters.

During my second interview, Lyle threw me in a conference room with the entire reporting staff and had them fire questions at me on everything from geopolitics to the Onion. I had never wanted to work anywhere so much in my life. When he called me and offered me the job in the most amazing way possible (“Will you please come work for us, Susan?”), I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried.

He redlined my first 1,500-word enterprise story and lectured me that my ending was an opinion (I’d mostly written columns before) and I vowed I would never cause an editor that much of a headache again. When I left the paper three years later because my first husband took a job as a union organizer in Michigan, I asked Lyle why he had hired me in the first place.

Old Capitol, Iowa City Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“You could write,” he told me. “I knew I could teach you how to be a reporter.”

And goddammit, he did. He also changed my life.

We’ve never talked about it, but I think he could relate to my nontraditional background. We had both married young, worked our way through college and knew what it was like to worry if your paycheck would clear in time to make rent. When I was assigned to cover stories about people struggling in the recession, it wasn’t just an academic exercise for me.

I ended up having my first child a year into my journalism career — something no one would advise. But honestly, there is no good time in your career to become a mother. There were definitely some less-than-supportive employers, like when I miscarried and my editor only wanted to know if I’d still have my Sunday package in time. But I just tried to be everyone’s Girl Friday, even if it meant doing everything backwards in heels with a Baby Bjorn.

And now I’m in a position to speak out about sexism in the media, giving voice to concerns a lot of younger reporters obviously can’t.

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder interviewed by a group of reporters at a 2012 press conference with Editor Susan J. Demas in the background | Michigan Municipal League via <”>Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Critics far more eloquent than I have noted the poor job our industry does of hiring — and even more importantly, retaining — women and people of color. It obviously helps to have diversity at the top, as we’re more likely to recognize talent and value different perspectives.

I’ve run two publications, Inside Michigan Politics and now the Michigan Advance, and have edited several more. I’ve hired dozens of reporters. One of the greatest joys is being able to give people a shot, to help them develop their voice, discover what they truly want to do and yes, to let them fail. Because we all do. The important thing is to learn from it.

One of the things I value most is reporters who know what they don’t know. None of us know everything, but as journalists, we’re often expected to have a handle on any number of complex subjects, from Medicaid data to quarterly earning reports. Give me a reporter who knows what questions to ask and will relentlessly track down the right people to answer them over someone who thinks they know it all, any day of the week.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

When I walked into the Michigan Capitol as a reporter for the first time at 28, it was completely intimidating. Some senior reporters were calling senators by their first names and I recall thinking that I would never be in a position to do that. It may be hard to believe, but I mostly just kept my mouth shut and got a crash course in Capitol reporting from Kathy Barks Hoffman, Chris Christoff, Gary Heinlein and more.

The press corps has changed a lot since then. I’m sure the gilded Capitol seems just as daunting for new reporters. But I can’t think of too many better places to be a political journalist right now than Michigan, the epicenter of the 2020 election — not to mention having a ringside view of torturous divided government and a possible recession. I’m proud of what the Advance has been able to contribute in less than our first year of existence.

Every day, I try and remind myself what a privilege it is to do what we do, to try and report on what really matters to people. Like most media, we get our fair share of hate mail. But sometimes, we do hear from readers who say our stories helped them or that we’ve made a difference.

And really, I couldn’t ask for more than that.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.