The Columns

Faculty Focus: Pam Luecke Professor of Business Journalism , Head of Department of Journalism and Mass Communications

— by on September 5th, 2016

Pam Luecke

“You often do need to plot your own path. That’s some advice I give to students – that your career path is yours. And you shouldn’t wait for someone else to establish that for you. You need to plot your own course and make your own opportunities.”

You have degrees in philosophy, journalism, and business. How have you connected these disciplines throughout your career?

They’re surprisingly related. I kind of stumbled into philosophy. I went to a small liberal arts college, coming in with no idea what I wanted to study. I thought maybe I would study sociology and become a social worker. But fall term freshman year, I couldn’t get into a sociology class. There was a seat in a philosophy class, which I took and loved. So I became a philosophy major. It turned out to be wonderful preparation for journalism and for life because you learn how to read closely, to think logically and to write concisely.

While studying philosophy, I started to work for the student newspaper and decided I wanted to become a journalist. So I went to graduate school in journalism.

And then, business, I kind of stumbled into that as well. My first job at a newspaper offered this wonderful benefit of paying for you to take courses. Thinking that I might want to be a newspaper editor someday, I started to take night classes in business. As I studied, the field of business journalism began to really boom, and so I thought I could combine my interests and report on business, as well. And so I completed my business degree.

In a 2011 book review you wrote for the New York Times, you pointed out that one group benefitted in the 2008 financial crisis — business journalists. How so?

In 2008 I was teaching business journalism – when the economy was just collapsing. It was a really scary time. There was a lot of hand wringing and a lot of questions. How did financial journalists miss this? Also, how did the regulators miss this? As a result, lots of articles and books surfaced looking back at what went wrong. How did everybody miss that? And so I think the introspection has been good for financial journalists. I would like to say it has been good for the regulation of the financial industry, as well, but I’m not sure that’s been the case. I think it reminded journalists that we need to always be vigilant and ask the tough questions. And if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

How do you see the role of business journalists now?

The same. I think we need to write about what’s happening but always be looking around the corner to see what might be coming next. We need to write, not just for the haves, but also for the have-nots. As the economy becomes more polarized and as the gap between the rich and the poor becomes wider, financial journalists have the responsibility to write for both ends of the spectrum.

What prompted your research on women in journalism?

I was a journalist for 25 years, and I was also the newspaper editor. That was my job. So it’s what I knew. When you start to teach, there’s an expectation that you’ll also do some research and some writing. And I thought, “Well, I’ll start with what I know.”

A couple of years after I came to W&L, I actually taught a course on women and journalism, which was a lot of fun. I learned a lot, and I think the students did too. So that got me interested in doing a little more research about the stories of women who had gone before. At first I was going to do just a general book about a number of them, but then I settled on one particular woman named Kay Fanning. I’ve just been chipping away at it, gathering the string, and it’s finally coming together.

Why Kay Fanning?

She’s got a remarkable story. She was the first female editor of the Christian Science Monitor and the first female president of the American Society of newspaper editors. This was back in the 80s and she was really breaking the glass ceiling. I don’t feel she’s as well-known as she should be. She died in 2000. I never knew her, but I feel like I do now. I just felt that I should report her story before memories fade, so I talked to a lot of people who knew her.

As head of the department, what do you find unique about the W&L journalism and communications programs?

We’re the only accredited journalism program at a small, selective liberal arts college. Accreditation means we aspire to high standards and subject ourselves to outside scrutiny every six years to make sure that we’re keeping up with the profession and that our students are getting the education they need for success in the professional world. Accreditation is really a distinction and an important one. Studying journalism at a selective liberal arts college like W&L gives students the well-rounded perspective they need to succeed in communication fields. It’s possible to go to any university and get a degree in journalism or public relations and just get skills, skills, skills — but completely miss the historical perspective. Or find you never stumbled into that philosophy or anthropology class — those other classes that will help you five or 10 years down the road when the whole world has changed.

Do you think this liberal arts mindset gives students an edge? As you said, the world is changing so much, especially in technology and multimedia. What role does a liberal arts education play in this kind of world?

I think it absolutely gives our students an edge. We can teach you the software of the moment. But by the time you graduate, it’s a different moment. So what you really need for a long-lasting career is the ability to continue learning independently and to love that learning. We hope we instill those values in our students, helping them to have a rewarding life and career and to reinvent themselves as they need to, as the world changes. We’re mindful that you guys are the ones who are going to lead the world and the profession. So we want to make sure you’re well equipped to make intelligent choices, not necessarily ones that are expedient.

What was your most memorable W&L teaching experience?

During spring term, a business professor and I took students to China for five weeks. The students were technically enrolled in two classes – a journalism course and a business course. It was eye-opening for all of us. The country is just vast and very sophisticated. I highly recommend everybody go to China just to understand this huge force in the world today.

You describe yourself as an avid reader. What books are you enjoying now?

I just finished “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. It’s just beautifully written, an amazing book about WWII. It’s fiction; I read a lot of nonfiction during the year, so I kind of binge on fiction during the summer. But I did just start another nonfiction book, a biography of Elon Musk, the just remarkable entrepreneur behind Tesla automobiles and SpaceX. I’m thinking about it as possible course text for the fall. And then my husband just bought me Sally Mann’s memoir. She’s a local photographer who just wrote this memoir that’s been very well received. It’s called “Hold Still.” Everybody in Lexington is reading it.

Do you have any reading suggestions for students?

I do think that students should read widely – and should read fiction as well as nonfiction. There’s some wonderful non-fiction out there, of course. I’m writing a nonfiction book. But I think you learn a lot about life from fiction. So, I would encourage students to follow their passion. I kind of feel books select you. When I’m travelling I like to get books that are somehow connected to the area that I’m travelling. But I do think reading is essential.

So when you’re not reading, teaching, or writing, I hear that you love to play tennis?

Tennis is my life. No, just kidding, I picked it up when I was an adult, I didn’t play when I was young. I’m an enthusiastic player. I wouldn’t say I’m a fabulous player. But this is a very good tennis town. It’s just kind of a nice lifetime sport. And a good social sport. I play doubles. There’s a wonderful group of women in town, and we try to play all year. It’s nice because it connects me to women I wouldn’t otherwise run into.

Do you have any advice for prospective majors?

It’s a wonderful department. We just started our new Strategic Communication major. It incorporates some more math and business; we felt it’s a practical improvement to the curriculum. Often, when I talk to some parents of students, they’re sort of anxious about their children considering journalism or communications – when actually it’s a really exciting time to pursue the fields because you get to play a part in shaping them. When I entered journalism, the profession was the way it was, and new journalists didn’t really get to have an impact on it. But the students who graduate today are getting jobs where they get to make decisions and plot strategy for companies, right from the get-go because they know the consumers. So I think journalism and communications are wonderful fields. You often do need to plot your own path. That’s some advice I give to students — that your career path is yours. You shouldn’t wait for someone else to establish that for you. You need to plot your own course. And make your own opportunities.

– interview by Laura Lemon ’16 and Jinae Kennedy ’16