Seline Memorial Lecturer

'Who you are is more important than what you are'

Leo Armatis, vice president of corporate relations for the Meredith Corporation, Des Moines, Iowa, and a Grand Island native, spoke April 6 at the college’s annual honors convocation. Excerpts from his remarks are printed here.

I’ve had what might be described as a three-tiered career. The first tier is what my parents described as my “bum” or “he still doesn’t know what he wants to do” years. The second was focused on a variety of positions in public relations/public affairs. And, the third tier has been in general management of a major national, publicly held media and marketing company.

My purpose today is to center your thinking on a nobility of purpose. Finding this nobility of purpose applies whether you’re a student in broadcasting, news-editorial or advertising/public relations. And it applies to you both personally and professionally. What I’m talking about is nobility in terms of strength of character, intelligence and knowledge, honor and respect and making a contribution to society that is important and meaningful. Also, make no mistake about it, this definition of nobility does not imply any trace of elitism or aristocracy. I’m here, with 38 years of experience somehow touching every one of your academic disciplines, to testify that nobility in your chosen careers is possible. Your UNL education provides you a vigorous license to observe, report on and participate in the nation’s, if not the world’s, affairs. You do, indeed, have exciting prospects.

Your chosen fields are taking lots of raps these days. Credibility is questioned. Ethics are subject to scrutiny. Intra-institutional debates rage about the role of the media in society.

Mort Crim, an author and news anchor who writes about the news media, spoke recently about some of those problems: “Credibility is the only capital a news organization has. Media are defining news too narrowly and do a poor job of giving people information they need to make intelligent, informed decisions. Moreover, we used to take what’s important and try to make it interesting. Now, we take what’s interesting and try to make it important.”

Public opinion polls show the media are at a 15-year low point in the public’s view of accuracy of news reports. Sixty-six percent of Americans think news organizations’ stories are inaccurate. You have an opportunity to change that.

My premise for that statement is undergirded and buttressed by your having this key understanding: Who you are is more important than what you are.

For 20 years, I’ve had the good fortune to work for a terrific company based in Des Moines: Meredith Corporation. We’re a public media company in magazine and book publishing, television broadcasting and interactive and integrated marketing. Best known for our major magazines, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies’ Home Journal, Traditional Home, Country Home and Successful Farming, we also own 12 network- affiliated television stations around the country.

As I prepared for this speech I asked our human resources staff to tell me how many of Meredith’s nearly 3,000 employees have job descriptions somehow related to journalism. They found that about 1,000 employees — including 10 Nebraska grads hired in the last three years — have “journalism” somehow incorporated in their job duties. If you’d add the advertising and marketing staffs, it appears that almost everyone at Meredith is influenced by some form of “journalism.”

Another little exercise I did: I asked a number of our magazine and television journalists what they would say if they were asked to speak to this gathering of journalism students, parents and professionals. What follows is a composite of those comments. Call them “seven rules of the road for career building.”

Rule 1: Seek a calling.

When Studs Terkel wrote “Working” in 1972, one of the people he interviewed was Nora Watson, an editor. “Most of us,” she said, “are looking for a calling, not a job.” That’s good advice. Search for that “calling.”

Rule 2: Be a Cookie Monster.

By that I mean be hungry and devour knowledge, information and experience. The renowned advertising executive, Bill Marsteller, wrote in Creative Management: “The finest prospects for Preparation H are those who sit in their offices.” You should cultivate a worldly view, yet be an expert at what you do. It’s a challenging balance. It means thinking big but also executing the details. You must develop circumferential, not just peripheral, vision. You need to see 360 degrees — all around you; 180 is not enough.

Of the traditional journalistic W’s — who, what, where, why, when and how — I suggest the “why” is the most neglected and overlooked. There’s an old saying, “Those who know how will always work for those who know why.”

My career experiences and observations testify to the truth of that claim.

Listen more than you talk. And learn to speak as well as you write. Be able to exude and express the passion of your subject on a stage to an audience of five people or 500. Do the same in one-on-one situations. I’ve seen careers catapult — or level off — based on this ability or inability.

Rule 3: Be of service.

In Meredith’s publishing operations, we define our journalism model as “service journalism.” Let me describe it for you. Service journalism is “the delivery of ideas, information (in some cases inspiration) through words, illustrations, design and various mechanical formats, intended to produce positive action on the part of the reader. In other words, journalism goes beyond the delivery of pure information to include the expectation the reader will do something as a result of reading. In some cases, it means making something that enhances the reader’s life. It may mean buying something. It could mean using a product to better advantage or trying a different approach to raising children or in day-to-day relationships with one’s spouse. It could be voting more knowledgeably. It’s action journalism, not because of the award-winning action of the journalist but because of the action we expect from the reader.”

In our broadcasting business, our news directors emphasize this reason to get into broadcast journalism: to improve the community and to help people, not to get face time. Each of these approaches embodies the “be of service” concept.

Rule 4: Your IQ should be equaled by your EQ.

Your EQ is your emotional quotient: steadiness of conduct; grace under fire; predictability. Don’t make people wonder which one of you will show up each day: the Jerk; the Mope; Mr. or Ms. Sunshine; Jekyll or Hyde. And, in that EQ/IQ equation, fine-tune your instincts, develop your gut-feel, your intuition, your street-smarts.

Add “TGIM” to your vocabulary: Thank God it’s Monday! A real pro’s work is never done. In my job, my obligation is 24 hours 7 days a week.

Our friend, Bill Marsteller “identifies four plagues on a career: dullness; egotism; cynicism; and pomposity.” I’ll add a fifth: whininess. If you’re inclined to any of these, choose another career!

Rule 5: Grow a rhino hide.

Accept and use criticism to improve. In this business, you get an exam about every 15 minutes, not just at midterm or “paper due” time. And please, bring to the table solutions and options, not problems.

Rule 6: Ooze ethics and integrity.

Without total commitment and devotion to those ideals you cannot be truly successful.

Rule 7: Remember the ties that bind.

Don’t forget those that “brung ya to the dance.” Give back to your parents, family, friends, professors. Give back to your community, to the University of Nebraska. Remember, in a career, as in your personal life, it’s collaboration, not independence, that wins.

So, let’s summarize. Adopt a nobility of purpose. The media and related industries need your help. Remember, who you are is more important than what you are. Apply these seven rules of the road for career building:

  • 1) Seek a calling;
  • 2) Be a Cookie Monster;
  • 3) Be of service;
  • 4) Your IQ should be equaled by your EQ;
  • 5) Grow a rhino hide;
  • 6) Ooze ethics and integrity;
  • 7) Remember the ties that bind.

If you work with these principles, you’ll have an opportunity to chart a successful career, a career that will have an impact on you and society.

Let me close with a message to the parents. I’ll illustrate it with a fictitious letter I found while rummaging through some old files. It does underscore the point why we’re all here today honoring these journalism students. It’s a letter to her parents from a young woman away at college.

“Dear Mom and Dad,
   I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner, but I’ve been a bit busy. Moreover, I lost my sheets of writing paper in the dormitory fire. After I got out of the hospital, they let me take the bandages off my eyes, so my sight is now just recovering. Also, it’s a bit difficult to write with my new finger grip since several of my fingers on my writing hand were amputated because they were frost bitten in the cold as I waited to be rescued by the fire department.

It sure is nice, though, that my new friend let me move in. So, anyway, I do have a place to sleep. You’ll like him; he’s a nice guy. By the way, I’m getting married sometime in the future. And, since you’ve always wanted to be grandparents I’m sure you’re pleased we’re expecting a baby next week.

Mom and Dad, I do hope you’ll like this little exercise I just did for you to practice my English composition because what I really wanted to tell you is that I got a “D” in Dr. Norton’s news/editorial class and an “F” in Dr. Walklin’s overview of broadcasting … and I just want you to keep things in proper perspective.
Love, Laura”

Thanks to Dr. Will Norton, dean of the journalism college, and all of you for letting a non-journalism grad, an English major from the school 50 miles up I-80, Creighton University, have the honor of being here today. Say hello to Grand Island for me!