Michael's community reporting builds trust in journalism
At the end of Michael Mott’s last all-staff meeting as Editor-in-Chief of UC Santa Cruz’s weekly newspaper, City on a Hill Press (CHP), he had all 50 staff members gather in a circle and hold hands.
“What are you grateful for from this experience?” he asked, and one by one students went around and shared how being on the student-led, student-driven newspaper changed them — in whatever way felt closest to their hearts.
Michael wanted to leave the staff on notes of kindness and gratitude—two things that he learned to value, but sometimes through periods of sadness in his life. “Readers remember your last word, and staffs remember your last word,” he said. When his father passed away Michael’s second year away from home at Santa Cruz, he reflected on his father’s virtue of kindness, and how he could embody that trait going forward.
“Gratitude is a way through for a lot of pain and suffering, if we think back to what we’re grateful for, it reminds us how lucky we are,” Michael said.
He prioritized fostering a safe space within CHP, where students felt they could contribute and have their voices heard. Whether students were brand new to the field of journalism, or from an underrepresented community at UCSC, Michael valued direct peer-to-peer communication in his leadership style.
“So often people don't get an opportunity to try new things,” Michael said. “They haven’t gotten a chance to try because public education weeds out uncertainty and curiosity, and I think those are the people who want to change the world and are going to change the world.”
Michael graduated from UCSC with a B.A. in modern literature in 2013, and left the beach town a couple of months later for New York City after being accepted to one of the top-ranked journalism graduate programs in the nation—Columbia University. There, he focused on data journalism and gaining experience in coding, which he hadn’t studied before.
He carried his experience taking an active role in his education at UCSC to Columbia, and when he saw something in the program that he thought wasn’t right, he sought to change it.
“Through the Student Agency Model I feel a lot more awake in the world,” Michael said. “I pay a lot more attention to how cultures are developed in workplaces and how things get done. My experience with student agency allowed me to question authority. At Columbia, I questioned how the school was doing things digitally, but instead of just sitting in my room and complaining about it, I emailed the top people and asked to talk to them about it.”
Michael was frustrated that students, like himself, who entered the university with little to no coding experience, didn’t have a clear introductory path into the field. He wrote a report on how news organizations are being more innovative in creating new forms of storytelling for journalists with varying levels of web and writing experience.
After interning at The New York Times and The Seattle Times, Michael returned to Northern California to be closer to his family and do community reporting for The Willits News. He saw his career going in two potential directions after earning his graduate degree—either a more data journalism job, or a reporting position — and the choice was clear for him.
Small communities still require good journalism, and Michael saw an opportunity to be impactful in community journalism. He strives to connect and re-engage community members with journalism, whether that be through the stories he writes, or the high school student interns he mentors. To value journalism as information is to changing the way mainstream media is often perceived.
“Student agency encourages us to be able to pick our own values, and for me it was a really freeing moment to say, ‘I actually don’t need to work for The New York Times right now; I don’t need to work on web even though it’s the hottest thing,’” Michael said. “I want to work on doing good journalism and figuring out how to do that no matter the community size.”
Standing up for his values is a quality Michael engaged with throughout his undergraduate career. When he became a leader of CHP, he heard stories of times the newspaper had been insensitive in its coverage—or lack thereof—of underrepresented communities on campus.
Michael took the initiative to reach out to the leaders of Cultural Arts and Diversity resource center (CAD) to bridge the gap between Student Media and identity-based organizations. With his guiding principle of kindness in mind, Michael approached ethnic organizations from a place of genuine inquiry—a desire to learn more about different organizations’ programming and represent their stories sensitively and accurately.
As he always says, “At end of the day what matters most is what we do for each other.” The connections he made taught other students the value of understanding each other and each other’s work.
Michael’s the first one to offer help when students are explaining a project they’re working on, or give advice if they are problem solving a situation. He gives back because he’s a person who holds his values close to his heart—and the personal transformation he experienced through student agency is something he is reminded of everyday.
“Having agency allows you the opportunity to be something,” Michael said. “It’s other people giving you a chance when you might not have had a chance before.