Freedom from objectivity led newspaper veteran Tom Callinan to a new life of activism

The concept is as simple as it is inspired.
Charitable Words is a nonprofit organization created by Tom Callinan, former Editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, to help nonprofits trumpet their message in stories, videos, photos and other forms on multiple platforms. Student interns, who learn by working with experienced professionals Callinan assembles to help, produce these messages.
Callinan left The Enquirer at the end of 2010. Like many freshly retired journalists, it wasn’t an easy transition from the 24-hour-news cycle to a life of quasi-leisure.
“You go from being at the top of the masthead for 35 years (almost eight in Cincinnati), then you wake up and your name’s not there,” he says. “But you’re not in the obits, so what am I? When I first retired, I was frantically networking. I was running around town, telling myself I’m still relevant. I was tweeting a lot, things like that.”
Basically, Callinan was unmoored for the first time since he left the U.S. Navy in his early twenties. After the service, he finished college and went to work in the newspaper business. He and his wife Maureen, who is an elder law attorney, raised three kids while moving through eight states and Washington, D.C., as he moved up the corporate ladder at Gannett, The Enquirer’s parent company.
Then it was over. Now what?
Michael E. Keating knew the feeling. He was an award-winning photojournalist at The Enquirer for more than 30 years when he left in 2012. He’s worked on a number of projects and is executive director of the Clyde N. Day Foundation, which provides assistance “for the betterment of mankind.”

“Tom has been able to do this because he now has the time and he has the contacts and he understands what people need,” says Keating, whom Callinan turned to for support and counsel when he created Charitable Words. “Every one of the organizations have benefited from what he’s done in a lot of ways. He’s helped them get their message out because most of these places don’t have the money to do that.
“What he is trying to do out there, which is essential to anyone who leaves a business, is (prove) you still have something to contribute. He wasn’t ready to lie in the sun. He still wants to be plugged in.”

Helping nonprofits inspire social change
After teaching at the University of Cincinnati for a year as the McMicken Professor of Journalism, Callinan realized that leaving the newsroom was liberating in its own way. He no longer had to be impartial in his pursuits.
“I don’t want to be objective,” he says. “I want to be an activist. I don’t even use the term ‘journalist.’ We’re storytellers. I’m working with the Poynter Institute on a project that goes beyond traditional investigative journalism. It’s solution-based storytelling.”
Callinan believes nonprofits can inspire positive social change. So does Libby Hunter, executive director of WordPlay Cincy, which provides tutoring, literacy and creative writing programs for students in kindergarten through high school.
“We know Tom because he is a former board member, and he and his wife have volunteered with us,” Hunter says. “He knew about our work with Aiken High School (and) I connected him with my friend Sara Drabik at Northern Kentucky University. She pulled together the team of three students that became the Charitable Words scholars who followed our WordUp kids throughout the school year (for a documentary film).
“It will be fantastic for the those kids to see the finished product (coming soon), but to be honest, just knowing that a film crew was following them around is great.”
This project is an example of the other half of Callinan’s win-win scenario at Charitable Words. In addition to making a promotional video for WordPlay, students gain real-life, hands-on experience about how to tell a story.
Rachel Kellerman is an NKU grad who majored in journalism with a minor in photography. One of her teachers gave some of her work to Keating, who was impressed and arranged a meeting with Callinan.

Rachel Kellerman “I met him in January of 2014, then didn’t hear from him until March,” Kellerman says. “Then he came to me and said, ‘This is a paying situation, but you might not be prepared. Have you ever done video?’ I said no, I really haven’t.
“But Betsey Nuseibeh of Melodic Connections needed a thank you video for the Hatton Foundation in two weeks. (Callinan) said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ So I went to Michael and had him show me the basics. And I did it in two weeks, and the rest is history.”
It actually took a little longer to make history, but Keating was impressed with Kellerman’s enthusiasm and work ethic and believed she had the talent to contribute if she had some guidance.
“She’s smart, she’s a bit older than your conventional student although still in her twenties,” Keating says. “She’s had some life experiences, so when she came back to school in earnest she wanted to earn a degree. But when she started doing a video, she didn’t know a thing.
“The perfect video is the marriage of quality images and quality words being spoken or things you hear, the sound, the background music. She understood that almost instantly. From the standpoint of producing a video, she is really self-taught, although highly critiqued. I’m absolutely ruthless with her … if I see something that I think can be better, I’ll tell her right away. She has improved with each of (the videos).”

'You need to look for the hope'
Kellerman’s improvement is an example of the satisfaction that Callinan gets from Charitable Words, similar to what he enjoyed as a newspaper editor — he’s proud of stories told well and happy to see students rewarded for hard work. But he doesn’t miss people criticizing him for coverage, or lack of it, and he’s certainly relieved that he doesn’t have to upend employees’ lives to meet a corporate budget.
Yet he does have to hustle for funding like every other nonprofit leader. He just doesn’t stay awake at night worrying any longer.
“I’m managing eight to 12 students and eight to 10 nonprofits at any given time,” Callinan says. “I play the maestro: ‘You move here and you move over there,’ and then I just get out of the way. I don’t have to micromanage. And the scholars get paid 125 percent of minimum wage. No free internships.”
Charitable Words takes on between 12 and 18 projects a year, which Callinan says costs about $60,000. He’s still learning the language and the logistics of the nonprofit world.
“I’m new at this,” he says. “I got $15,000 from the Hatton Foundation to do four projects about children with disabilities. I’ve gotten some money from ArtsWave, the Mayerson Foundation. I have applied to Scripps, Gannett. I have a guy writing grants for Haile (U.S. Bank Foundation).
“I need to get lucky. I have to have somebody recognize that I don’t feed children, I don’t tutor, but I help … by telling stories about people who do.”
And he teaches others to tell those stories. Kellerman was working on a video at a nursing home for Personal Guardianship Services, a local nonprofit that helps people whom Probate Court has declared incompetent to care for their own affairs, and was struggling because she found it so depressing.

Scene from Rachel Kellerman's video for Personal Guardianship Services “I had gone a time or two and I told (Callinan) this is the most depressing project, it was awful,” Kellerman says. “It was just so sad. Tom was looking at the pictures and he said, ‘Yeah, these look sad.’ Then he said to go back and try to find the good in it somewhere. And that really helped turn the whole project around.”
“She came back with all of this dark, heartless stuff,” Callinan says. “I said, ‘You need to look for the hope. These people are safe, someone is paying attention to them, you need to look for that little glimmer of hope.’ So she went back in and came back with one image where they brought a dog in and the guy laying in bed perks up. Otherwise this guy is just sitting in a wheelchair, staring blankly, but he sees this dog and that’s what engages him.”
Sometimes a glimmer of hope is all it takes to turn things around. But your chances are much better if you have a team telling stories about solutions.
Tom Callinan, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, presents “Welcome Home: In Search of a Lasting Peace” at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Insights Lecture Series at 7 p.m. Aug. 19 in Reakirt Auditorium. Find more information here.

Read more articles by Bill Thompson.

Bill Thompson is a writer and editor who has more than 30 years of experience with The Cincinnati Enquirer and local magazines. He hosts a weekly radio show on WAIF (88.3 FM), "Blue Snakes and Banjos," and lives in Mt. Adams.
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