Paducah helped Lansing build 'a passion for great journalism'


In May 1975, a 17-year-old, fresh out of Saint Mary's High School, got a job at a local TV station for a little over a buck and a half an hour.

"I graduated on a Saturday in May, and then I started that Monday," said John Lansing.

He didn't have a clear future plan and hadn't seriously considered journalism as a career path.

But his five-year gig at WPSD launched Lansing into a career spanning more than four decades, culminating with his recent appointment to CEO of National Public Radio (NPR).

Lansing, who moved to the area in his youth after an early childhood in Minnesota, spent his first two years as a studio photographer, which piqued his budding interest in the visual presentation of the news.

Lansing recalled himself as "a sponge for everything … a studio rat."

"I took a lot from learning the craft of photography," Lansing said.

Eventually, he took a full-time job in the newsroom, where he supplemented his love of visual arts with a passion for truth-telling and keeping his community informed.

"I got the bug for 'hey, this stuff matters,'" Lansing said. "It's an actual public service that really is meaningful."

Among his most-remembered stories, Lansing recalled an "unbelievable crime story" that involved a prison escape at the Marion, Illinois, federal prison in May 1978 and an attempted helicopter hijacking.

"All eyes were on Marion," he said.

Lansing remembered "crawling through the woods (with a camera), determined to get the shot."

"I got it and got back to Channel 6, we sent that back to NBC, and it was on the Nightly News."

About five years after first entering the world of journalism, Lansing took a reporting job at an outlet in Louisville which eventually promoted him to managing editor, and a few jobs later landed with the E.W. Scripps Company, where he eventually became president of their cable networks.

Lansing, who still has family in the region and keeps in touch with local acquaintances, said he still feels a strong connection to the area that gave him his start.

In 2005, during his time with Scripps, a reporter for The Sun contacted Lansing for an article on St. Mary's success stories.

Lansing recalled having to be up front with that reporter and admit he'd never received his college degree.

He'd last attended classes at Bellarmine University in Louisville, in 1984, but his career path had made further study impractical.

"I only needed about nine courses," Lansing recalled.

So in 2008 he returned to finish his long-deferred bachelor of arts in communications, and walked in commencement May 2009 -- 34 years after his high school graduation.

"It was important to me just to finish," he said.

Lansing's appointment to NPR ended his tenure as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the Voice of America program.

He said working at a government agency with an "editorial firewall" installed to keep the government from interfering in the agency's journalism even further instilled in him the value of keeping the media independent. "The value of a free press is really the reason we exist," he said of Voice of America.

And in a country that has seen significant vitriol directed at reporters and the media in general, Lansing said it's important to remember the reason a free press exists.

"It's a negative spiral when the truth is bottled up by government, and government regimes that are trying to manipulate stories to their advantage," he said.

He called the First Amendment "the lifeblood of a strong democracy. To erode that confidence in truth and truth telling is something that doesn't lead to a healthier democratic nation."

Though he won't be making editorial decisions on individual reporting items anymore, Lansing said he hopes to use his position as head of NPR to continue to expand the organization's presence on digital platforms, and keep strong relationships with member stations across the country.

"I think it begins with a passion for great journalism," he said.

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