WILKES-BARRE — It’s not just at this time of year that I wish Tom Bigler was still around.
Bigler, one of the most authentic journalists I have ever known, died in 2007. But his memory and his legacy continue today with the annual Tom Bigler Journalism Conference at Wilkes University. The 2018 Bigler Conference was held Friday in the Karambelas Media and Communication Center on South Main Street.
Bigler, who worked for five radio stations, three TV stations and who was a columnist here at the Times Leader during his long career, would have loved to be able to just sit and watch the interaction between students and panelists, as they discuss and debate the state of journalism today — now sometimes referred to as “fake news.”
But there was nothing even close to fake about Tom Bigler — Bigler was learned, intelligent, articulate, opinionated and, more often than not, right on target.
Kalen M.A. Churcher, Ph.D., associate professor in the Wilkes University Communication Studies Department and adviser to The Beacon, puts the conference together every year. It brings together high school students from throughout the region to interact with representatives of all segments of the local media.
The conference is a great opportunity for the students to not only learn about media and journalism, but to afford them valuable information to use in their career-making decisions.
Such was the case for Kiki Ruggiero, a 17-year-old junior at Delaware Valley High School, who was named Young Journalist of the Year. Ruggiero said her interests are in the fine arts — she hopes to be a museum curator one day and maybe publish a fine arts magazine.
But she did say she enjoys writing, especially feature stories.
So there is hope — hope that some of these students will elect to carry the torch of great journalists like Tom Bigler. As keynote speaker Kenneth P. Vogel, a journalist and author, told the students — beware of that fake news because it’s everywhere. Vogel said people have to always be conscious of what is fake and what is real.
Vogel’s claim to fame, apparently, is that he once worked at the Times Leader. I’m kidding, a little. Vogel now writes for The New York Times, a paper you have probably heard of and read.
Ruggiero said she found the Bigler Conference fascinating and rewarding. She said she learned a lot from people well-respected in news gathering, editing and reporting. She said she will minor in communications in college.
Again, there is hope.
Tom Bigler would be very proud to see that the students attending the 18th annual journalism conference named for him still have that inner drive to report, to opinionate, to photograph, to design, to accept the immense responsibility of accurately reporting the news of the day to everyday people.
The kids realize it is extremely important to get that story first, but much more important to get it right. And to be fair.
That’s what Tom Bigler was all about. Bigler was the people’s advocate. His commentary sparked many a conversation and water cooler discussion. And he did it in Tom Bigler fashion — passionate, yet gentle; outspoken, yet thoughtful; and always undaunted in every cause he fought for along the way.
And Tom always meant what he said — and he was never afraid to say it.
Tom genuinely cared about the community. He cared about his country, having served in the military. And he welcomed every opportunity to debate those who disagreed with him.
Kiki Ruggiero didn’t know much about Tom Bigler. I suggested she Google him and read about him and, most importantly, emulate him.
There has never been enough Tom Biglers in journalism — not then, but especially not now. There should be. That’s why hosting an annual conference in his name is so critical. Kalen Churcher was a student of Bigler’s and she knows the kind of person and journalist he was.
Now, Kiki Ruggiero may go on to be the best damn museum curator in history. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
But if she and the other 265 or so students decide to pursue careers in journalism, they would be well-served by aspiring to be a Tom Bigler-like journalist.
Let’s hope together.