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March 21, 2013

‘Career Week’ brings PD journalist to CSU

By James Ryan

Evelyn Theiss, 23-year journalist for the Plain Dealer, addressed 46 students at Cleveland State University’s Dively Room in the College of Urban Affairs on Wednesday, March 6 during “Career Week.”

At The Plain Dealer, Theiss has worn many hats. She has been its politics writer, fashion editor, arts writer and is now one of its medical reporters. She has covered Cleveland City Hall and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, while making many connections along the way. It wasn’t a surprise that students felt empowered as she shared her 12 secrets on how to make connections that pay off.Evelyn Theiss

“I know I’m supposed to call and send thank you notes,” said Crystal Barker, psychology major. “It feels awkward to call people up just to say ‘hi,’ but she really showed me the little things you can say to break the ice. I think I’ll start making some calls.”

Theiss cautioned against the action of calling people only when one needs them. Showing up was a mantra throughout her lecture.
“It’s easier to remember a face than a voice,” Theiss said. “You can observe the person when you’re with them, but you can’t over the phone. I think it’s important to show up for things.” Theiss added, “If you commit to something, show up for it. A lot of people have gotten in the habit of not doing that.”

Theiss shared a story proving that showing up can really pay off. While working on a run-of-the-mill story, Theiss showed up at someone’s door step. The results helped her write one of the best stories in her career.

In 1969 the Plain Dealer was given photographs depicting slaughtered women, children and old men in a Vietnamese village. When the Plain Dealer published the photos, Americans were shocked to find that U.S. soldiers could gun down unarmed peasants and leave them to die in streets and ditches. This became known as the My Lai massacre. Theiss was given the assignment of writing about the anniversary of the original 1969 story. She decided to do what Plain Dealer reporters before her didn’t do – go to the home of the photographer who took the photos.

Many reporters called, but few ever got a response. She visited My Lai photographer Ron Haeberle at his home.

“Nobody had talked to him for decades,” Theiss said. “He wasn’t the type of person to seek the limelight. So I thought it would be better to drive to his house.”

She showed up at his door unaware whether it was really him. She knocked, and he answered. During their ensuing conversation, he revealed to her something that he had never revealed before. When the original story broke, Haeberle told everyone, including the army, that he didn’t have still images of the actual shootings. Theiss found out the truth. “I shot pictures of the shooting,” Haeberle said in the interview with Theiss. “But those photographs were destroyed.”

By the Army?

“By me.”

Theiss would have never learned the truth had she not gone above and beyond to make that connection. Throughout her lecture she commissioned attendees to be curious, read, ask questions and listen.

“Say thank you and more importantly, write it,” she said. “Own your mistakes. Apologize and work to make it right.”

Theiss’ 12 network-building secrets channeled her many years of experience, which captivated many students including one career service coordinator.

“I thought the event was excellent since Evelyn approached networking from a lifelong, thoughtful approach,” said Juliana Capuano, Career Services coordinator. “Her talk was not ‘how to network at an event,’ which can also serve a purpose, but about building lasting relationships, being truly grateful and listening.”

Theiss is set to earn her Master’s degree in urban studies in December. In 2008 the Plain Dealer for the first time in its history laid off employees, including reporters.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be one of them,” Theiss said. “I thought I always wanted to get another degree so I thought if I do get laid off I’ll go full time, but if I didn’t get laid off I would commit to going part time until I finished my degree.” She added, “Now the Plain Dealer is going to be letting more people go this summer, and I will almost be finished with my Master’s degree. So this turned out to be very fortuitous.”

Those interested in lending a voice in defense of the Plain Dealer’s reporters can visit facebook.com/SaveThePlainDealer or http://www.change.org/petitions/save-the-plain-dealer and sign a petition saving Cleveland’s only newspaper from dismantlement.