I had the chance to interview world nomad Mr. Joel Gershon, my former Webster University Thailand journalism instructor, to learn more about his life as a freelancer, instructor and traveler. He lived in Thailand for eight years, traveling extensively throughout the Indochinese Peninsula. The following interview discusses his professional life commencing with his formative experiences that guided his trajectory as a writer and educator, including the amazing places he’s been, and ending with people who have impacted his life throughout his vocation. Enjoy the photographs!
STUDENT: Why did you want to be a journalist as a child?
PROFESSOR: According to my grandmother, when I was a kid I’d read aloud from the New York Times. I always loved newspapers. I had an experience [possibly mentioned in class] when I was a kid where I thwarted a mugging where an old woman had her handbag robbed. I chased after the mugger, he dropped the bag and I retrieved it. And I ended up writing an article for the local newspaper when they heard about some eight-year-old who thwarted a mugging. Once I wrote the article and saw my name in print it was thrilling for me. I never shook that.
So from that point forward you knew you wanted to go in this direction [of journalism]?
I loved storytelling… even in second grade I enjoyed getting up in front of class and telling a story. It was a lot of fun. I wrote for the high school and college newspaper. I was editor of my college newspaper. I always wanted to do it. It was always what I felt drawn to. I loved reading newspapers. I felt it was my calling.
What’s the best story you’ve written? What would you consider your best article or publication?
I once wrote a large publication for an NGO and it was about the resiliency of children after disasters and I traveled to India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines and saw how these NGOs post-disaster programs worked or didn’t work (to see what could be improved and what seemed to be effective). I love to travel and this [opportunity] took me to places I wouldn’t have ordinarily gone to. I sat with the local leaders to see the real life situations, interviewing orphans. I took photos for it. It was a 70-page publication.
I filmed a video where I went to Bhopal, India to the [industrial] site [to document] a gas tragedy that was the worst chemical accident in history. Thousands of people died and were harshly affected and I was able to get in there and speak to experts and victims. It was aired on CNN on the 25th anniversary. I completely produced, edited and filmed it myself. Those two stories were the most meaningful for me.
How much time do you spend writing on average every day?
These days…not enough. I have not really kept up on it like I would like to. I used to be really diligent about a blog I kept up but I haven’t dealt with that for a long time. I am not writing for anything regularly. I have got into teaching, which requires a lot of energy to prepare for lessons, grade papers, and stay on top of things. But I find teaching rewarding as well. I wish I could have a better balance of writing and teaching. I still manage to get some writing done but as for every single day… it would be nice to set aside an hour every day but at the moment I can’t say that I am doing that.
So when you were younger before you entered the academic profession of teaching you had more time to devote to your writing consistently?
Just really in the last two or three years it’s gotten to the point where I’ve been doing more teaching than writing. Ideally I’d like to be doing 50/50 where right now it’s at 80/20 or 90/10. When I first broke into journalism, there was a lot more money available for writers. But with all the free content available these days it makes it more challenging. I had to make a transition [in order] to make a living. I do still manage to get some great assignments so it’s not like I’ve completely given up on journalism at all. I wish I was doing a bit more at the moment.
Who inspires you as a writer? Do you have or have you had any mentors, people that you admire or you aspired to be like?
I had a great professor in journalism school who taught me in a human rights reporting course. We are still in touch. He’s an editor with the AP, Associated Press. He’s the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. I also had a good friend of mine who was my mentor in photography and writing. In terms of well known people, Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker and very famous writer [was a mentor]. He’s a world famous writer able to get information from sources. He spoke at my journalism school graduation where we shared the same stage and I got to shake his hand.
The writer Robert Caro wrote a book called the Power Broker. It was so incredibly reported and this book is 1000 pages. His dedication to getting that story and getting it right with so many sources and spending so much time on it. It was about Robert Moses who transformed New York City in the 20th century more than anybody else. Robert Caro is someone that I think of as a journalism god.