A One-Man Grad School
By Laura Castañeda
Laura Castañeda is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.
Washington Post columnist Bob Levey is a local institution, known to his loyal readers as a prolific journalist and author. But to the network of assistants he has hired over the past two decades, Levey also is a lifelong mentor who has helped launch and nurture their careers.
"He's a one-man graduate school," says Amy Worden, who worked for Levey from 1986 to '87 and is a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer's capital bureau in Harrisburg. "He's been my greatest mentor, without a doubt."
The success of Levey's mentoring is clear, given the career trajectories of many of his former assistants. Besides the Inquirer, they can be found at the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Providence Journal, Seattle Times, San Jose Mercury News, Advertising Week, National Journal and Chicago Sun-Times. A few of them also work at ABC News and National Public Radio.
"I'd stack that record up against anyone's," says Levey, who joined the Post 34 years ago after a short stint at the Albuquerque Tribune.
Levey has hired 26 assistants since he began his five-day column about Washington in 1981. Every week he also conducts two one-hour online chats for washingtonpost.com, writes and delivers two early-morning radio commentaries and cohosts three television talk shows.
His assistant typically performs some light administrative duties, such as bookkeeping. But most of her time is spent writing, conducting research for his columns and commentaries, and producing the online chats.
Levey's column is well known for spearheading two major fundraisers. His latest efforts raised more than $732,000 for the Children's Hospital campaign and more than $632,000 for the Send a Kid to Camp program. During these fundraisers, Levey's assistants get a chance to write at least 16 columns under their own bylines. Most of these stories profile children who are seriously ill or economically disadvantaged.
The position became a full-time, one-year job in 1999 after the Post agreed to cover most of the $32,000 salary. Before then, Levey paid his assistants out of his own pocket to work part time.
All but two of his assistants have been women, which Levey says is not entirely coincidental.
"I find that women work much better in a cooperative environment than men do, especially when they're 22 or 23 years old," Levey says. "I saw 300 résumés this year and did not interview a single man."
While his pattern of hiring may raise eyebrows in a city where the word "intern" has salacious connotations, Levey's former assistants say he is nothing but professional.
"I never felt uncomfortable with him," says Julia Angwin, a technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal who worked for Levey from 1992 to '93. "He acted like a surrogate father, offering dating advice when asked, but never offering unsolicited comments on my personal life."
After their stint is over, Levey does all he can to help his assistants get their next journalism jobs. And he is always available for advice.
"Having someone like Bob on your side is a huge career asset that doesn't go away after the year is up," says Booth Moore, who worked for Levey from 1994 to '95 and now covers fashion for the Los Angeles Times.
Why does Levey spend so much time nurturing aspiring journalists? Part of it has to do with a desire to give something back to the profession that has treated him so well.
"But I also, romantically enough, like to think that I can influence the next generation of journalists in a positive way," he says.###