News Decoder has been a return to roots for me — a startup with slim financial returns that belie both its social worth and the joy of working with youth.

Here are lessons Ive learned from News Decoder
The author is the founder of News Decoder. This month he is turning over management of the educational nonprofit to a new team led by Managing Director Maria Krasinski, while remaining president of News Decoder’s Board of Trustees.

Forty-eight years ago, I flipped a coin with a friend who, like me, wanted a break from university studies to discover the world. Heads, Australia; tails, France. Tails it was.

So as fate had it, we flew to France — two 20-year-old Americans on a year off from the cozy certitudes of university life, eager to take a modest risk discovering a new part of the world on our terms and with precious little money in our pockets.

Two years later in a university dining hall, a visionary friend who was far more accomplished than I was asked if I’d like to help him, on a shoe string, start a weekly newspaper in the U.S. state of Vermont. Honored by the offer but puzzled why he had tapped me, I quickly said “yes.”

Those two moments — a coin flip and a conversation — changed my life. They set me on an uncharted, life-long course, guided by a taste for foreign adventure, an appetite for news and an appreciation of the thrill and challenges of entrepreneurship.

So when a colleague recently asked me what lessons I could draw from guiding News Decoder for the first 7-1/2 years of its existence, I selfishly thought of what it has meant to me personally.

News Decoder is quintessentially international.

Before deciding to launch News Decoder in 2015, I spent time with a career consultant, who asked me to jot down on a piece of paper the professional experiences that had meant the most to me in my life. Top of the list was helping to launch The Black River Tribune — the Vermont weekly that I helped start with its visionary founder, Will Hunter, in May 1976.

At the newspaper, we pocketed less than a pittance but gained so much more than money can buy. In doing so, we gave a swath of New England a local paper to be proud of for nearly three decades.

Also at the top of my list of satisfying professional experiences were my years as a teacher and school board member, years spent trying to enrich young people’s lives so they could eventually be visionary leaders.

So in a way, News Decoder has been a return to roots for me — a startup with meager financial returns that belie both its real social worth and the satisfaction of working with youth.

News Decoder is quintessentially international in outlook and footprint, and so aligns with my experiences as a foreign correspondent, which all started with that fateful trip to France. News is at the core of News Decoder’s work — how producing news can help a young person better understand the complexities of the world and become a better global citizen.

So to a young person contemplating an uncertain future, I say: Be true to your values. Trust your instinct. Don’t be afraid of taking a calculated risk that might seem crazy at first. Your career will fall into place. And if you’re as lucky as I have been, it will come full circle, back to a unique and thrilling starting point.

These young people will be holding the reins of power.

Other lessons I can draw from News Decoder that a young person might find useful:

1. Hard work can provide joys that money cannot buy. It’s a cliche, for sure, but one worth living. It can be next to impossible for a young person to see beyond the glitz and glitter that our media — entertainment, advertising, news, social media platforms — peddle in the interest of making a buck. Much of it is fake, but the allure is powerful.

It takes a strong will to swim against the tide of mass consumption, and sometimes young people need elders’ support if they are to stand by their principles.

2. Despite all the gloom and doom around us, many individuals are keen to support a nonprofit with an abstract, even wooly educational mission that aims to enrich its community intellectually, not financially.

I’m thinking of News Decoder’s donors, correspondents, academic partners, board members, advisors, interns and staff — all of whom have given so much more than they have received, in the interest of building a community of empathetic individuals committed to enhancing global understanding.

3. The news industry may have a business-model problem, but there is still ample interest in the news as a tool that can foster democracy.

The young people we work with at News Decoder are not the jaundiced purveyors of bias, driven above all by an insatiable quest to make money, who run so many news outlets in our polarized world. Youth are old enough to grasp the existential threats their forebearers have bequeathed to them, and they want to do something about it.

Call it naïve. But, fate willing, these young people will be holding the reins of power when their elders are long gone. It’s up to us to give them the tools and the values that will help them succeed where my generation has failed.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What was the “risk” that the author took when traveling to France 48 years ago?
  2. What does the author mean by, “Hard work can provide joys that money cannot buy”?
  3. What are three values you wish to live by during your professional life, regardless of the type of career?
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