Most journalists can think of at least one moment when what they wrote made a difference, even if in a small way. When that happens, most of us must confess, our hearts race. And we should confess this, too: We owe whatever success we’ve had to those who came before us and took time to teach us this craft.
It might have been those high school newspaper advisers who taught us the basic skills we use today. Or older colleagues who helped us as rookie reporters to not embarrass ourselves on a story. Or those editors who, despite the looming deadline, showed us how to improve our writing and not just fix our copy for that day.
Mentors invest time and faith in us when we haven’t yet earned it — usually with the belief that we will earn it and then pass on what we’ve learned to others someday.
Samuel G. Freedman has taken this spirit and pressed it into the pages of his most recent book, "Letters to a Young Journalist." Freedman is an award-wining author, columnist for The New York Times, and professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He also spent years as a daily reporter for the Times and other papers before quitting to write books full-time.
Freedman’s important book is intended to be a helping but firm hand on the shoulder of beginning journalists. Freedman sees — quite rightly — that the role of newsroom mentor is needed more than ever before and not always carried out as it once was — a debt unpaid. "We didn’t invent reporting," he quotes one journalist. "It was passed on to us."
The bookstore shelves already sag with tomes of advice from stars who offer tips on how you, too, can be the next big thing in narrative journalism. To Freedman, the mission is what’s important. He’s not ashamed to declare journalism a sacred calling. He urges young journalists to be independent thinkers in newsrooms filled with consensus and conformity. He tells them the ‘measure of a journalist is not fame but the condition of your shoes: They reveal how hard you’ve worked the streets looking for stories. The more scuffed, the better.
Freedman also has the courage to say things most of us in the newsroom know but rarely admit. Here’s one: We are all human, we are subjective by nature, and that fairness is the ideal. Freedman argues the pursuit of bloodless objectivity that denies our humanity and seeks some sterile middle ground is both impossible and, at times, irresponsible.
Freedman’s publisher, Basic Books, has produced this book as part of its the "Art of Mentoring" franchise that has given us such titles such as "Letters to a Young Lawyer" (Alan Dershowitz), "Letters to a Young Activist" (Todd Gitlin), and "Letters to a Young Contrarian" (Christopher Hitchens).
You get the idea. These books — in title, anyway — mimic the classic "Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke between 1903 and 1908 wrote 10 letters to a novice poet who sought his praise. In his letters — published only after his death — Rilke dispelled the romantic image of the writer by speaking honestly about a life of rejection and despair. Most of all, Rilke memorably tested his young correspondent’s commitment to the craft:
"Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?" (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
This same advice could be offered to someone wanting to break into journalism, especially today. Freedman’s book is strongest where it honors Rilke’s honesty:
"One thing you can say about the present unpopularity of journalism is that it drives out all the uncommitted. If you’re a true believer, if this is meant to be your life’s work, then nothing and nobody can change your mind …. I do urge you to bear witness. I urge you to celebrate moments of human achievement and unearth evidence of human venality. I urge you to tell the story. I urge you to be accountable, to your public and to yourself, for what you do and how you do it."
Freedman’s writing doesn’t quite live up to Rilke’s words. Few of us could match it.
But Freedman’s courage to speak about journalism in his unflinching moral tone gives this book its power. It’s a tonic for a business that’s turning news into a commodity and exalts blogging and other first-person prattling as a solution to what ails journalism. And his book balances the bad advice young journalists get about what should motivate them. (I once heard an editor, who fancied himself as a mentor, tell reporters that wining a Pulitzer was what this business was really all about. I wanted to scream. Looking back, I wish I had.)
Freedman draws on journalism’s rich history and tawdry tales of its recent past. And he occasionally uses overwrought analogies to make his point — his comparisons of journalism to the novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and an ancient Egyptian god named Thoth lost me.
Overall, though, he frames his book as memoir, talking about his experiences as a teacher, reminiscing about his early days in newsrooms filled with typewriters and cigarette smoke, and about his discovery that his 1996 book, "The Inheritance," was a Pulitzer finalist. Freedman carries his story off with humility, but I wasn’t convinced this was the best approach for this book. Then again, no one confuses me with a young journalist any more.
So I assigned Freedman’s book to his target audience: students in a beginning journalism course I was teaching this summer at Harvard University. "His story read like a novel," one student said during class discussion. "I wanted to see what happened to him next." Other students reported that they hadn’t seen the deeper mission of journalism until they had heard his story. As another student put it. "He tells us what lessons he learned so we can learn them, too, you know?"
"Yes, I know," I replied, quietly grateful that Freedman’s letters to these young journalists had arrived on time.
Brent Walth, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter with The Oregonian.