I was talking recently with a friend’s son who’s interested in journalism, which today seems like a very uncertain proposition. Perhaps it always has been— my parents certainly thought so.
I gave him the lay of the land and noted the difficulty of making any money, but I added that reporting does provide great training for any career, and for life. Thrown into every kind of situation, your job is to comprehend what’s happening and why. You ask questions and analyze, often in tense circumstances and always with no time to lose. And you learn to write and tell stories, efficiently and effectively, usually with all hell breaking loose in the newsroom around you.
I also told him a few personal stories, for whatever lessons he might glean.
My first newspaper job was at a Brooklyn weekly, and it lasted four days. I was 22, a year younger than the guy editing my first story. I found his criticism excessive and said as much, obliquely, or so I thought. An hour later, the top editor fired me. Though he barely knew me, apparently firing me wasn’t enough. As I descended the stairs of that crummy second-floor office, he called down: “You better find a new line of work—you’ll never make it as a journalist. You got no sense of curiosity.” Had I taken his comments to heart, I might have gotten into a more lucrative career and salved my parents’ concerns. Instead, I marched back up the stairs and talked him into letting me freelance.
A few months later, armed with some experience and a portfolio of decent stories, I contacted 10 Boston newspapers, large and small. I couldn’t get the time of day. So when my Dad reiterated that I should call a guy he knew who headed the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, I finally listened. My next trip home to Cincinnati, I made the call. His friend was out of town, but the number two guy said he’d see me. And at the end of our session, he said, “You’re a great interview!” With a phone call, he paved the way for an internship at their best paper, The Pittsburgh Press.
Once there, however, I was in deep water. And when I told my brother that the other 12 interns had way more experience than I, he responded: “Well, you can always outwork them.” I heeded his advice, getting to work early and staying late. Sometimes I slept in the men’s lounge, and asked veteran overnight reporters to wake me up and take me with them if something happened, so I could see how it was done. By summer’s end, I won the job.
I told my friend’s son that when, despite your best efforts, things aren’t going your way, sometimes you have to take a totally different tack. When you take a well-considered risk, the world has a way of bending to your designs.
After three years of writing eight stories a week for a weekly suburban section, I applied yet again for a promotion to the city desk. And for a third time, I was rejected. Afterwards, I wandered Downtown, pitying myself and my lack of progress. As workers hustled to lunch, I noticed a homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk. As people stepped around and over him, I paused and wondered, “What would that be like?” That afternoon, I proposed to Managing Editor Maddy Ross that I live on the streets posing as a homeless man. It was a radical departure, but she approved it. The ensuing series won national awards and landed me on our equivalent of the “Spotlight” team portrayed in last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner.
Finally, 11 years ago, when I was business editor at the Post-Gazette and the industry’s future looked bleak, I took a bigger risk. I quit and started this magazine. And again, risk—my periodic friend—made all the difference.
By now, I’ve reached the age where I’m asked for advice more often than I seek it. Yet, I wonder if I shouldn’t be heeding what I told my friend’s son, especially regarding risk. Risk isn’t easy, in work or in life. We strive to reduce it in nearly everything we do—especially as we get older. But is that the right path? Is listening to the voice that tells us “You can’t do that,” ultimately what makes us old?
Perhaps with all we’ve learned and with eternity looming, we should instead simply say, “What have I to lose? What have I to fear?” And become bolder than we’ve ever been, with confidence and faith that the powers that guide the world will be with us, wherever we venture.