South Shore, Chicago—
“Read, write and live.” These three words summed up over an hour of stories, advice and encouragement legendary Chicago Suntimes columnist Mary Mitchell shared with the Lost Boyz baseball journalism class on Friday, August 13th. Mitchell generously took time from her writing to visit our sports journalism interns at the Rebecca Crown Center in South Shore. She spoke candidly about overcoming life challenges, and the kind of personal commitment it takes to succeed in the newspaper business and in life. “As the oldest of 12 children, all growing up poor in the Ida B. Wells housing projects, I was determined to find a path to a better life,” she said. That path began at Dunbar Vocational High School, where Mitchell joined a girls group called the Exquisite Ladies Club. The organization put an emphasis on good grades, not having babies and community service. “This is where I discovered that life could be bigger, more fully realized than the tiny world poverty presents,” said Mitchell. It was here that she began to enjoy reading as an inexpensive introduction to a better life. “To escape the constant noise and drama in the household, I liked to go to the library to read and enjoy the peace and quiet.”
During those cherished hours in the library, Mitchell grew fond of the words and ideas expressed in the books and articles she voraciously consumed, but her love of language and learning didn’t immediately guide her into the journalism business. After graduating from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) she entered the work force as a mail clerk. She eventually worked her way up to bigger things. “I wasn’t even thinking about a career in media then. I had become a highly skilled stenographer—I could transcribe over 150 words per minute,” said Mitchell. In fact, Mitchell was the first African American legal secretary at a major Chicago law firm called Seyfarth Shaw, LLC and she was the best legal secretary they had. “I had twenty years in and I was doing fairly well until I was passed over for a promotion I knew I deserved, so I quit,” she said.
Following her early passion for words, she took writing classes at Columbia College and with help and encouragement from Carol Holtz and P.J. Bednarski, the Chicago Sun-Times brought her on as an intern in 1990. Mitchell worked hard to find her writing voice and to perfect her craft. “It was difficult. I took a lot of criticism in those days as I learned how to write accurately, how to write a decent lead, how to tell a story,” she said. “But I got better and better.” Although she was well past the age of most undergraduates, she augmented her internship by pursuing her B.A. degree at Columbia College. “The students thought I was one of the professors at first,” she recalled.
After earning her degree in 1991, the Sun-Times hired her full-time. “I covered city hall, education, and any other assignment given to me. They assigned reporters various beats in those days to see if they could trust you to write accurately and quickly,” said Mitchell. While covering education Mitchell wrote a five part series on Chicago Vocational High School which won her wide acclaim. “I began to hone my craft then,” she said. “I realized I wanted to speak for those without a voice.”
By 1996, Mitchell’s writing voice was crisp and powerful and the Sun-Times honored her with her own column. “I get to write what I want to write now. I try to tell stories that need to be told about people in the community whose situations don’t normally get noticed,” she said. “I don’t write to an audience though, I write what I believe needs to be said and the audience finds me,” she added. Mitchell said that she knows about living in poverty. She knows about being a single mother. She knows about pursuing an education late in life. She knows about racism. “I understand those things and I can speak from experience about them,” she said. That kind of truthful, often scathing writing has won her numerous awards and tremendous commendation but it also comes with a price. “I get a lot of hate mail. In fact, there is one guy that calls me nearly every day and leaves a message with a bunch of the “N” word,” said Mitchell. “When I see his number on the phone, I just pick up the receiver and hang up right away,” she said, chuckling.
When asked about her take on the future of newspapers and journalism in general, Mitchell was honest, if not a bit doleful. “With the internet, anyone can call themselves a journalist,” she said. “And the newspapers are becoming increasingly reliant on people who can generate stories, write light, popular copy, upload images, and manage web content. That means newspapers don’t have nearly as many reporters as when I started and they don’t mind paying five bloggers rather than one pricey columnist like me,” she said. “For example, an out of work reporter broke the story about the LaQuan McDonald shooting. It puts great pressure on us paid reporters because the stories are coming from outside the newsroom,” she added. Mitchell was optimistic that the industry will survive, but she believes it will be vastly different from what it is now. “No matter what happens, people still need information,” she said.
Mitchell stressed to the class that they must read and read a lot, and they must write and write a lot to perfect their craft. And in a spin on the adage that writers should write what they know, Mitchell also said that in order to write well, in order to tell stories that people will read, they must live. “How are you going to say anything if you haven’t done anything,” she quipped.
At the end of the discussion, The Lost Boyz sports journalism intern class expressed their gratitude to Mrs. Mitchell for her time and shared wisdom. This is the first sports journalism class funded by After School Matters. Many of the interns hope to go into journalism as a career. The interns and the Lost Boyz, Inc. baseball league are fortunate to have spent such quality time with a legend in the field.