David Plazas is the director of Opinion and Engagement for the USA TODAY Network Tennessee. He has written award-winning editorials and columns on issues ranging from affordable housing to government accountability. He oversees the opinion team and strategy for multiple large and small publications across the state including The Tennessean.
During COVID-19, David started the Tennessee Voices podcast, featuring conversations with leaders, thinkers and innovators statewide that has produced more than 200 episodes since March 2020. He also chairs The Tennessean’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which has led efforts to create more equity in coverage, the newsroom and special projects. The group has been critical to a new Black Tennessee Voices initiative to tell stories for and with the Nashville area’s Black community.
Additionally, David leads The Tennessean’s Civility Tennessee campaign on civic engagement and delivered a TEDx Talk in 2020 on the art and science of public disagreement. His topic for the Mentoring Matters event will be centered around how to build trust and sustain conversations in an era of disagreement, misinformation and polarization. To join David’s virtual table for this event, click here.
We sat down with David to discuss his journey and how mentorship has impacted his life.
What led you to a career in journalism and the position you’re in today?
I never thought that I would be a journalist; it was not part of my plan. My parents are immigrants from Latin America, and they basically presented me three career options: lawyer, doctor, or engineer, because that was the way to prestige and money. I chose the law path because I loved to write; I always knew I loved to write, but I never thought of it as an actual career. When I was in college as a pre-law student studying political science and Spanish literature, I had worked for a law firm and learned it isn’t what the movies say it is. It’s a lot of paperwork, and obviously an important career, but I realized it wasn’t for me.
When I was studying abroad in Spain my junior year, I was doing a lot of writing for a magazine on the American perspective in Spain for the students at the University of Seville and doing some long form writing, and one of my own mentors said in one of her letters, “You really should go away from the law path and become a writer.” I thought about it and said, I don’t know if I should do that, but as I started thinking about it, I knew I loved to tell stories about people, and people had trusted me with their stories. I was able to talk to them and then have the opportunity sometimes to make a difference, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to push a policy, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I started enrolling in some journalism classes and went to grad school for journalism after I graduated from undergrad, and started my career in 2000.
How has mentorship impacted your professional journey?
Mentorship is fundamental. I think I have had a mentor since I was a kid. I didn’t realize at the time that they were mentors, but when I first started really understanding what that meant, I was in college. My longest mentor is a woman who was my first boss in a job that I had over the summer right before college. We developed a friendship, and she would give me very wonderful advice and ask me questions, and I’d get to know her too, and I realized that mentorship is reciprocal. As much as your mentor is guiding you and helping you out, you’re also there providing something to them.
I’ve been in roles of both mentee and mentor formally and informally for the last 20 years. I still have mentors that I go to. Earlier this year I went to several of those mentors to ask about a potential career shift, and while it didn’t work out in the traditional sense, it actually ended up working out a lot better for me because I was able to do a lot of self-reflection, and became really happy with where I was at.
I’ve been mentoring for several journalism organizations and an online news association, The National Association of Hispanic Journalists. I’m a mentor now in my second year with Report for America, which sends young journalists and pays them. It’s not an internship; they’re professionals, but it’s kind of like a fellowship for a year or two, where they work at different news firms across the country, especially in areas that have news deserts. And so, they’re young, they’re hungry. In my first-year experience, the most interesting thing is we didn’t talk a lot about stories because he was pretty mature when it came to telling stories—what he needed help on was navigating his career. He didn’t know how to ask for a raise. He didn’t know how to have difficult conversations with his bosses and colleagues. And that’s an area where, given my experience, I can tell him about my mess-ups and also my successes to help him be much more competent than that. And mentors have provided me that as well.
How has your experience as a mentee informed your approach as a mentor?
One of my best mentorship experiences was when I was going through a real transition where our company was reorganized—this was right before I came to Nashville. I was feeling very insecure about the future. There was a mentorship program, and I was offered the opportunity to be a mentor, but I said at this point in my career, I need someone to help me. So I volunteered to be a mentee to a guy who was absolutely wonderful. What made the experience wonderful was that he said, “We’re committed. I’m going to give you once a week, half an hour, my complete, undivided attention, and we can talk about anything you want.”
I went in with a lot of humility to say, I need someone to help guide me because I don’t know what I’m going to do. He assured me to just think about my options. He said, “You don’t have to do anything. You can stay, you can leave, or you can leave the industry, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.” And it ended up working out. I was recruited to Nashville, and when I came there was a lot of uncertainty about whether this newsroom would exist for the next year. I was excited about an opportunity to rebuild a newsroom, and my mentor helped me think about that. He said, “Now’s the time to experiment; at the very least, don’t be afraid.” Coming in with that attitude really helped, and seven years later, here I am.
What’s the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?
I’ll tell you three pieces of advice that I’ve received, and they all have to do with yourself and your relationships, but they apply to any part of your life. And when I say relationships, it could be romantic, it could be professional. So the first one is more religious, if I may, for a moment. My dad’s an after-school priest, so I come from a faith tradition. It’s from Matthew 10:16, which is, “Be as sweet as doves, but as wise as serpents,” which the way that I’ve come to interpret it is: Be kind, be honest, be just, but also don’t close your eyes; watch your back because not everybody has the best of intentions, and that’s been very, very helpful because it allows me to be realistic and optimistic at the same time, which I know is an unusual combination, but I think it helps me stay happy and content.
And then the other two pieces of advice are really focused on relationships, but you can apply them anywhere. One of them is from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She wasn’t my personal mentor, but she spoke at my graduation, so in a sense she mentored my entire class. She said, “Sometimes in a relationship, you have to be a little bit deaf.” You know, there are things that your significant other or friends say that sometimes are just going to make you mad. And most of the time it’s insignificant.
And then the third one I learned from one of my mentors, Melba: Don’t try to change the person you’re with. If that person wants to change, he or she will. But the fact is, if you try to apply your own self to that person, it will be a destructive, toxic relationship. And that’s been very helpful because it means that there are going to be certain people that you’re going to have long-term relationships with, whether they’re friendships or business relationships, and let them be who they are. And if there’s someone who’s not adding to your life, then it’s time to disengage and move on. And that’s been very helpful.
What would you tell your younger self?
I would say don’t work yourself to death. And I say that from the standpoint of knowing that as much as that work got me to where I am, it wasn’t always good for my mental health. It wasn’t always good for my physical health. There’s an adage and I hear these things like, “Work hard, play hard; you can sleep when you’re dead.” And today I have a lot more balance and happiness in my life because I do take the time to rest. I do take the time to focus when I need to focus. A lot of that I have to admit comes with age. I don’t know that David who was 22 years old, 23 years old, would have listened to 47-year-old David, but that’s what I would tell him. It’s just, you know, protect your body and your mind; get the rest that you need; value those relationships in front of you. It’s not all about work. But when you do work, work hard.
David Plazas is serving as a Guest Mentor for our upcoming event Mentoring Matters, a professional group mentoring event taking place virtually on September 22 from 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM. At this event, you’ll have the unique opportunity to spend an hour with David or another influential industry leader of your choice. All proceeds go to supporting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee’s programs and services.
Buy tickets to secure your spot today at www.mentorakid.org/mentoring-matters.