Interview with Tom LaVenture
Date: April 8, 2012
Name: Tom LaVenture
Major, minor, and graduation year: Political Science, Journalism, 1997
Job Title: Staff Writer with Crime & Courts beat
Organization/ Place of work: The Garden Island (daily newspaper), Lihu'e, Hawai'i.
You're a newspaper reporter, what does that entail? What are your duties or responsibilities?
-Day to day coverage of the 5th Circuit Court on Kaua'I, the Kaua'I Police Department, Fire and Rescue, and related news for the County of Kaua'I, Hawai'i. The job also includes general news writing on events and features.
What are the highlights of your job that you enjoy most?
-Newspaper reporting allows a writer to pursue stories of interest. Publishing a story still brings a sense of pride and accomplishment even after many years. This job is a great way to becoming familiar with the heart, soul, and history of a community in a relatively short time. It offers access to interesting people as the subject of news and features and every contact leads to new and other interesting things.
What are the challenges that you face with your job that are not enjoyable?
-It is difficult to work as a reporter and hope to hold a 9 to 5 schedule. Many days it is like that, however, news does not happen for the convenience of someone's schedule. Just the other day I stayed an hour late to finish a story when the power went out and it turned out to be an island-wide blackout. I worked into the night on the story and still had to be in court at 8 a.m. the next morning. At the same time it is what makes the job exciting and meaningful, in trying to get to the bottom of things and then getting complements on the work makes it all worthwhile.
There is the challenge to step into a new community and catch up quickly on the local culture and history, along with current events. Every story requires another level of scrutiny for background and that is second-nature to someone who has lived there for many years or for their entire life. It is not that intense all the time but it is a barrier.
How do you spend your work days? Do you spend a lot of time office/lab/meetings/outside?
-Most mornings are spent in court, where I review the circuit calendar and attend hearings of interest. In the afternoons, I type up the stories and am sometimes sent out on other ones. The schedule is not concrete but it's mostly hearings and chasing a siren when it's a big event. There is a feature or two each week and of course, my weekly Island Crime Beat column that the editor assigned to me. I enjoy that very much as I haven't had that opportunity much.
How did this type of job/field interest you and how did you get started?
-I moved to Kaua'i in late June 2011. I was very happy to find a newspaper job in a diverse community, and in such a beautiful location. After working for 15 years with the Asian American Press in St. Paul, Minn., it was really nice to find another predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander community concentration. I found the job using the online journalism jobs website, "Cub Reporters." It compiles links to various journalism job search sites where The Garden Island job was posted. I was a finalist on my first attempt and was hired on the second one a year later.
What qualifications did you need to obtain this job?
-It helped having 15 years experience working exclusively with Asian and Pacific Islander news in Minnesota as a writer and editor with the weekly newspaper Asian American Press. I also worked for The Daily Journal in International Falls for most of 2008, and this daily newspaper experience was also essential to getting another daily news position. The resume is one thing but the news samples speak loudly, and if an editor or publisher thinks you're a good fit then that is a big factor.
What personal qualities or abilities do you believe contribute most to success in this job/field?
-A willingness to work odd hours and with deadlines. Once you justify missing a deadline then it is a slippery slope of low expectations from there. Finding your voice in writing is important because then that story is accurate and flows well.
What organizations were you involved in College that helped you towards your career?
-I completed my degree in two parts. From 1985 to 1988 I was a veteran's clerk in the Registrar's Office, a member of the Veteran's Club, and took part in the UW Soviet Seminar in 1988 with Dr. Charles Kenney, a UWS Political Science professor who coincidentally passed away in 2011. When I returned in 1995 after another stint in the Army, I enjoyed Model United Nations with Dr. Khalil Dokhanchi. I enjoyed the Japanese Language class with Yasuko Hayashi. I also enjoyed my work-study jobs with Dr. George Wright in the Political Science Department and with Dr. Thomas Bumgardner as the Music Lab attendant for the Department of Music.
The biggest help was perhaps taking an active role in The Promethean, the school paper under print journalism professor Dr. John Marder. It was here that I learned how a newspaper is run and gained practical experience that helped later on - especially with how a newsroom works together under pressure of late nights, technical problems and deadlines.
My fondest memory is with making many friends in the International Students Organization. It led to taking the first Japanese language course offered at UWS and I believe was instrumental in fueling my ambition to work with communities of color and led to my work at the Asian American Press.
What degree/s is appropriate for this line of work?
-A journalism or mass communications degree is helpful. The degree helps with writing newsgathering and writing skills of course, but the liberal arts degree helps round out the process to make for solid reporting. There are many players involved in making news and unless you understand the issues the story could follow the whims of influence. Media is ever transforming and although I won't presume to speak with authority on the field, I would say the student who prepares to work in all types of media will have the most opportunities as the lines of broadcast, print and online journalism continue to blur.
Where and/or what do you hope to be in 2-5 years? 5-10 years? What are the keys to this career advancement?
-If you asked that question 10 years ago, I would have said to work in the public relations or communications field, as that is often the path of journalists who seek regular hours and better pay than the newsroom provides. I would not have expected to be where I am at now, and would only hope to find more interesting opportunities abroad if I don't settle down somewhere. It's a hope to either find a home forever or to keep moving along to other interesting jobs.
What was the best piece of advice you received and from who that helped you towards your career?
-With this writing I can't quickly quote any professors or the many incredible mentors I have met in my work with the Asian community in Minnesota. Some people taught me to think, while others taught me to appreciate and to be a good listener. Most of all the people I meet daily have a life experience and with they have had a part in shaping my perceptions of people, of community and most importantly myself. Well okay, just one quote, and in honor of my Dad who just had knee surgery. He sometimes speaks about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. One of my Solzhenitsyn lines and relevant to journalism: "It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions - especially selfish ones."
Do you have any advice or "words from experience" for a college student interested in this job/field?
-Get an internship every summer or as soon as possible after school. That will let you gain the type of experience you want as a student and media outlets usually have many opportunities. That experience is the best possible foot in the door for positions in major media right out of college. I didn't have an internship and was very fortunate to wind up with Asian American Press, where there was also an opportunity to work in related nonprofit community foundation work in all kinds of issues. That was personally fulfilling but not necessarily financially rewarding and that is not a path for everyone.
If you knew all this back in college, what would you say were the most important classes? Is there anything you would have paid more attention to? Any additional classes you would have taken?
-Don't put off the required classes. I recall a good remedial math program under Annette Morden, but I understood clearly that my disadvantage in the upper level courses were the core skills that are shaped in high school and first year of college. Work hard on the requirements and they will enhance everything thereafter. Some of my best memories are of the one-credit classes. I remember practicing piano in the Fine Arts building when I wasn't working at The Promethean. There was cross country skiing on Saint Louis Bay, downhill skiing at Spirit Mountain and golfing at Nemadji. Attend the cultural events and get to know the community of students. Attend the fine arts events and of course the many lectures. A college brings in the best speakers.
In college, people claim that a bachelor's degree isn't enough anymore and that you need a master's or doctorate degree to get your foot in the door. What's your opinion?
-If someone has a calling, the focus and drive to make a difference in their field of interest, then they owe it to themselves and their profession to pursue the highest level of education they can attain.