A Snapshot To Go With the Negatives  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   March 1996

A Snapshot To Go With the Negatives   

A newly minted reporter finds great satisfaction in his new mission.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


The press has been shelled from all quarters lately, including books by some of the better creatures of the newsrooms and bureaus. Among other things you keep hearing: People don't like you.

What do you say to someone who wants to go into this line of work?

When I knew I was going to do it and was ready to confess, I was 15. My Aunt Anne took me aside and told me the facts of life. It was in the front bedroom on the first day of her visit and she already had gotten the word: I wanted to work for a newspaper.

She was horrified. She knew all about them. She was married to an editor and knew what he paid.

You will never, ever have any money, she said. I said I knew that. "Never," she exclaimed again, in the days when you knew an exclamation when you heard one. "Ever," she exclaimed again.

That's all I remember about the day.

What do you say now? I wouldn't start the same way. Coming from me, it wouldn't sound like the crack of thunder, anyway, because she and my uncle owned the paper. She knew. And I knew she knew.

It is a bad habit among many journalists to revel in the most Spartan approach. Tell 'em not to do it. Tell 'em horror stories.

The rites of passage have changed, but usually they still include some lamentations from the weary.

Not long ago I had a visit from a newly minted reporter who has been working for a while on a smallish daily and has a one-county beat. When I first met him he had no idea he would want to do what he is now doing. He has taken all the right steps to get there. And he glows with it.

That may change and, in fact, nothing will ever be quite like it again. But he is writing good stuff. He knows it, and his editors know it. He has developed a style. He will do well for some time to come where he is or somewhere bigger.

What interested me the most, though, was not the professional evolution that I saw. It was the turn-on from a mission that right now is uniquely his, in a county you never heard of, which for some time to come will bear the imprint of his first months of hard work, in stories that reflect high standards and caring values.

And lest anyone misunderstand about caring values in this case, the mild-mannered reporter is driving some folks crazy by really reporting on them. No doubt he has heard about solution-driven journalism, but where he works the best solution in some cases is for a few guys to be shown the gate. (But that's not his job.)

What do people say when you walk down the street? I asked. "They yell at me," he said. They'd rather leave some things undisturbed.

I remember when that kind of reception would have appalled him. He likes it a lot. And it is not because he is The Arrogant Media (of which we have a plentitude).

So another young reporter gets launched in a small place, working for good editors down the road in the main newsroom of a paper you may or may not know the name of, learning how to connect all the dots (and the databases) from the cophouse to the statehouse, and worrying (within a good set of starting standards) about the right and wrong of just about everything he does.

So what. It made my day. That's all.

###