Will future journalists have the benefit of learning from some old pros?

by April 5, 2011 0 comments

By Alan Deutschman

It might have been a prank perpetrated on the student body by a subversive administrator, or it might have just been a quirky coincidence, but registration for fall semester classes at our university begins on April 1. That means that this week I’m supposed to create a flyer to post around the Journalism School to recruit students to sign up for the new course that I’ll be designing and teaching: Business Journalism.

Fortune covers As I begin to draft the advertising copy—and try fruitlessly to channel my inner Don Draper—my mind drifts back to the years when I was just starting out in this field. Do I even remember how I first learned about business journalism—how I gained the knowledge, habits, and skills that I would rely on for nearly a quarter-century? Before I can teach a new crop of 20-year-olds about this subject, perhaps it would help to reflect on how I learned it when I was their age.

In the summer of 1985, after my sophomore year at Princeton, I worked as a paid intern at the New York headquarters of the Wall Street Journal. It was the best summer job imaginable: Instead of making coffee and running errands for other journalists, I was supposed to report and write feature stories under my own byline.

The catch, of course, was that I was competing for space with all the paper’s seasoned professionals—and I was tackling a topic that I knew hardly anything about. Although I ended the summer with a few precious bylines, my greatest opportunities for learning came from simply being around the other reporters.

It was especially helpful that the low-walled cubicles enabled me to overhear many of my experienced colleagues as they cajoled, charmed, and occasionally intimidated their various sources until they got the story. I picked up the lingo from listening. And I constantly asked the newsroom stars, such as Pulitzer Prize winner James B. Stewart, to have lunch with me and let me question them about their own paths.

After college I took a job as a reporter for Fortune magazine in New York and soon found myself assigned to fact-check other writers’ long, complicated articles under tight deadline pressure—a harrowing experience but nonetheless a superb learning opportunity. And I absorbed even more when I eventually had the chance to spend two to three months at a time as a researcher close by the side of a terrific reporter taking on a big story, whether it was Carol Loomis dissecting the accounting issues around health benefits or Alex Taylor analyzing the challenges of the auto industry.

This kind of experiential learning was extremely helpful to me, but I fear that today there are far fewer opportunities for aspiring journalists to apprentice at the sides of experienced hands at well-established institutions. Instead they’re going to have to learn about the practice of business journalism while they’re also reinventing the business of journalism. I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work, but I’m counting on my students to help puzzle it out when we work together this fall.

Alan Deutschman is the Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. More about Deutschman and the other Reynolds Chairs.

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