FROM THE BY SARAH NIGBOR Champion of journalism When I met J. Michael Norman, I had returned to college to complete a journalism minor. I had graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in French …
BY SARAH NIGBOR
Champion of journalism
When I met J. Michael Norman, I had returned to college to complete a journalism minor. I had graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in French and Spanish, but after much soul-searching, decided to return to college to learn about journalism. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Norman was the professor of my first journalism class at UW-River Falls. I’ll admit, I was a bit starstruck to be taught by the author of the “Haunted” series. “Haunted Wisconsin” and “Haunted Heartland” were two of my favorite books growing up. I owned every book Norman and co-author Beth Scott wrote.
I had loved my French and Spanish classes, but nothing compared to how much I enjoyed that first journalism class. It ignited a fire in me that never died and inspired me to pursue a career in journalism.
I was stunned to hear on Friday that Norman had died earlier that morning. He was 74, much too young. As my friend and former publisher Steve Dzubay said, it’s a tremendous loss for River Falls, UW-River Falls and the communications profession.
Norman joined the faculty at UW-River Falls in 1973; he was an associate professor of journalism and department chair for more than 15 years. He co-chaired the steering committee for the interdisciplinary marketing communications major, of which he was a co-founder. He was also one of the founders of WRFW, the campus radio station. He retired in 2003, but was a lecturer from 2005 to 2007.
As I listened to his lectures in a stuffy North Hall classroom, as a champion for the importance of community journalism, he instilled that enthusiasm and drive in his students. He inspired hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of students to enter the world of community print and broadcast journalism. Every student needs a supporter and believer like Norman. When I was applying for journalism jobs, he always readily agreed to provide recommendations for me.
My mother was a custodian at UW-River Falls, and Norman interviewed her for one of his “Haunted” books, which are collections of American ghost stories. I asked him once if he believed all the stories people told him; I’ll never forget his answer. He said it wasn’t important whether he believed them or not; what mattered was that the people telling them believed they happened, and it was his job to share them.
Community newspapers are important because every single item in a newspaper is important to somebody. Journalism matters because people matter. Journalism is different from social media in that any journalist worth his or her salt will verify facts and attributes information. If a mistake is made, it’s corrected.
The photo of a ribbon-cutting at a new bakery might be more than a photo; it’s a culmination of someone’s dream come true. Reporting on tax increases or school referenda might be dry at times, but it matters because people need to know where their money goes. The police blotter isn’t just a list of people’s misdeeds; it shows the community what officers must do. A child might be thrilled to read their name in a photo caption; a mother, friend and wife may be memorialized in an obituary. The good and the bad make up our lives and journalists document the community’s lives. They also help the community know information that may affect their daily lives: Where the road construction is popping up next, what referendum the school district is proposing, who is running for office, or what’s happening to an old building on Main Street.
These are all things that J. Michael Norman taught me. I am lucky to have had a mentor like him.