What do a food writer at the Los Angeles Times, a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal based in London, and a features and enterprise sports writer for the Washington Post have in common?
Aside from dream jobs, they started their careers in metro newsrooms around the time they received their driver’s licenses. “I relied on rides from (newspaper) friends, the city bus system and a pair of roller blades to get to and from the newsroom,” said Rick Maese of the Washington Post.
Biographies are filled with stories of famous people whose career path was struck by an early childhood experience (think of George Washington and the cherry tree). Newsrooms seem to be filled with people who knew in adolescence that this business was in their bones.
Like so many traditions of the business that have died in the bonfire of expense cuts over the past decade, we’ve lost that “take a chance on this kid” mentality that served us so well.
“These experiences definitely aren’t as available as they used to be,” said Jenny Strasburg, the Wall Street Journal whiz who describes her job as “unsettling the people who have secrets that shouldn’t be secrets.” The official beat is “covering banks and regulations and trading and the intersection of all three.”
On the day that Jenny picked up an award as the New Mexico Press Association’s High School Journalist of the Year award, I invited her to intern on our staff at The Albuquerque Tribune where I was editor. She had been on the newspaper’s council of teen advisors, and when she interned for us on the city desk as a general assignment reporter, everyone in the newsroom recognized her energy, intelligence and ability to spot a story from a mile away.
Jenny doesn’t think that the opportunity she had is available today. “I don’t think newspapers in general—smaller regional papers, metro papers—are focused on teens really much at all,” she said.
Russ Parsons said his high school newspaper advisor in Virginia told him the local paper was looking for someone to cover high school sports. “The pay was really good and I liked writing.”
Parsons moved on to his college paper, his local paper and, some 20 years ago, to the Los Angeles Times. He became the food editor and in 2008, he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Who’s Who of Food and Beverage.
As a high schooler and collegiate journalist, he kept his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open. He learned from some of the best when he started stringing high school sports for the Washington Post and from a high school sports editor named Tom Boswell, who went on to great notoriety as a baseball writer.
Maese recalls fitting in easily with much older colleagues. “They never treated me like a kid and always entertained my questions—and also tolerated my unsolicited advice.” Maese’s editors refused to let him focus solely on sports. He was assigned to news side editors—experience that helped at the Post. He’s covered all the major sporting events several times, but also helped cover an earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the Newtown school shootings.
The skills all three young journalists employed could have also made them successful in other careers. What if the door to the local newsroom had been closed? Would they have gone in another career direction?
Possibly, said Parsons. “I don’t have much imagination so I can’t tell you what they would have been. I liked writing. Maybe I would have been a writing teacher.”
Strasburg said, “Without the training ground, I might have looked elsewhere for the kind of excitement and adventures I learned so early I could have while being a reporter.”
When newspapers don’t create an entry point for bright high school students, “the prospects for connecting future journalists with the newspapers we know seem pretty grim,” Strasburg said.
While some newspapers—mainly in larger metro markets—still welcome high school students into newsrooms, the relationships are few elsewhere. High school journalism programs and high school newspapers are fading, according to an April story in the Chicago Tribune. Even Newspaper in Education programs designed to introduce young people to daily newspapers have been slashed at many newspapers.
Any farmer suffering through a long winter is tempted to take the seed corn intended for next spring’s planting. Those farmers fail. Newspapers should avoid that mistake. We ought to look for extraordinary youngsters and open our newsroom doors to them.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.