As a fifth-grader, Dana Coester said she wanted to be a neurosurgeon.
Everyone laughed at her.
Such a ridiculous idea, right? A girl in the 1970s dreaming of becoming a neurosurgeon?
“I think back and wonder what would’ve happened if someone said, ‘Hey, that’s a fantastic idea for you’” Coester said.
Coester never became a neurosurgeon. Yet she still managed to prove those naysayers wrong by excelling in a journalism career that has not only inspired fellow journalists, documentarians, and storytellers, but has empowered ordinary small-town citizens across the United States.
Her path began in Liberia, of all places.
Coester’s father, who served as a civil engineer in the military, uprooted the family from southern Missouri to the African country for a few years when Coester was a teen. The family happened to be there during the Rice Riot of 1979, when hundreds of residents took to the streets of its capital city, Monrovia, to protest the increase in the price of rice (Liberia’s staple food). The military and police were summoned to turn back the demonstrators, who looted shops and supermarkets. Some people were killed.
Coester, who was 14 at the time, and a friend visited the market that day in an attempt to experience local culture. Instead, they got a firsthand view of chaos.
“I started getting into all things digital. To me, technology was culture, life.”
Armed with a camera, Coester began taking pictures. A soldier walked up and snatched the camera from her.
“I got this immediate sense that, ‘Wow. This camera is valuable,’” Coester said. “Information has power. It was that experience that made me want to go into journalism.”
Coester returned to Missouri to finish high school before embarking to the University of Missouri-Columbia to study journalism in the mid-to-late ’80s.
Even then, Coester could sense a tide turning in the journalism industry. Most households didn’t even have Internet access yet, let alone a computer. But Coester envisioned journalism embracing technological wonders and morphing from paper to digital, from the linear to the nonlinear, from a restrained art form to a realm of endless possibilities.
“If you were a photographer or designer in 1984, you knew the world was changing,” she said. “Darkrooms were disappearing, and photographers began using digital cameras. I knew that technology and computers would be the magic of everything. My professors at the time thought computers would lead to the downfall of the industry. As a student, I wondered, ‘How did they not see the magic of this?’”
When the journalism school first got four Apple Macintosh computers with Adobe Pagemaker, one of the first desktop publishing programs, no student was more excited than Coester.
“I started getting into all things digital,” Coester said. “To me, technology was culture, life.”