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Journalists: Be humble, be learners, work hard. You don’t have to be an expert at the beginning

When your newsroom wins a prestigious Keystone Press Award, like the John V. Bull Award for freedom of information work, you’re asked to say a few words at the annual awards banquet, attended by several hundred journalists from across the state.

The YDR won the Bull award this year for the third straight time. It’s an honor that recognizes a staffwide commitment to using public records in stories big and small — from how to check whether a licensed professional has been disciplined to campaign finance to examining why York County initially denied a man a request for specific information in 911 logs, something it had been court-ordered to release.

So, about those few words: The YDR asked me to accept the award Saturday night in State College. Editor Jim McClure asked me to post what I said. So here it is, including a quote pulled from Nieman Storyboard. I know that in winning the award, we might be considered experts on public records — but, really, the staff just works its butt off at this, and yeah, we gain knowledge as we go along, but we learn something new every time we use the right-to-know law:

This is, literally, a staff award, so to the judges and to the PNA, thank you on behalf of the YDR.

It’s an honor to be recognized, because we understand how much great journalism is being done by all of you and by a lot of people in your newsrooms.

I’m privileged to work at the YDR, where we have staffers who come in every day wanting to do great work, wanting to be better, wanting to challenge themselves.

And I try to remember that for all the experience we gain, that journalism, as much as anything, is still about knowing what you don’t know.

It’s about having the humility to understand that in some ways, when you take on a new project, you start out by learning.

That’s why I love this quote from writer Susan Orlean, and I hope it reminds us all to be humble learners and to welcome that sense of discovery when we go after the next big story:

Susan Orlean: I enter all my stories as a student. I don’t know anything about anything. I had no expertise. I was a student for the five or six years I was reporting on Rin Tin Tin. I gave myself a seminar, and then there was a significant moment where I felt that I could become a teacher, and I could teach readers what I had learned. That’s the moment I felt that I could write about World War II. I could write about a piece of it in a very intimate way. It’s something that I feel: That model of going into a story as a student frees you out of that notion that you need to go in as an expert.

Thank you.

P.S. Here is what the judges said about the YDR’s public-records work: “News stories, statistical compilations, a ‘how to’ for citizens hunting for information, a total commitment to preserving freedom of the press using examples of its value. Good writing, good reporting, well-edited and, best of all, useful.”