Nearly 50 years ago, when I was a 20-year-old student journalist preparing to take over as top editor of the Daily Princetonian, my predecessor gave me some advice. “Enjoy this office,” he said, surveying the grand room on the second floor of 48 University Place, with a massive desk at one end, a long sofa along one wall, and a conference table big enough to sit our entire 10-person editorial board, “because it might take you 20 years in the real world to ever get an office this big again.”
He was more than right. In fact, I still don’t have an office that big.
I was reminded of that advice just last week, when I was invited to spend a few minutes with the bright and eager high school students participating in the Princeton Summer Journalism Program, which is described on its Twitter account as an “intensive 10-day journalism seminar for rising low-income high school seniors. Promoting diversity (and dreaming big) in college and professional newsrooms since 2002.”
Richard Just, the outgoing editor of the Princetonian at that time, founded the summer program, which has grown to an enrollment of 38 students, drawn from 350 applicants. All expenses are paid (with funding coming from the university, grants, and Princeton alumni donations), including travel to and from the campus.
Just is still the volunteer director of the effort even as he pursues his own career in journalism. In a recent fundraising letter, he cited some accomplishments. “Every year, despite the enormous socioeconomic disadvantages they face (such as undocumented immigration status, homelessness, and parents in prison), our students excel in the college admissions process. Next year nine alumni of SJP will be undergraduates at Princeton. Since 2008 we have sent 55 students to Ivy League schools — and dozens more to equivalently competitive colleges.”
Alumni include a Major League Baseball reporter for the Star-Ledger, a web manager for the New Yorker, a reporter for NPR, a photo editor at Architectural Digest, a graduate student in film at USC, and a participant in a journalism start-up in New York.
This year’s program included appearances by writers from the New York Times, New York magazine, Time, the New Republic, and MSNBC, among others, as well as field trips to the offices of Bloomberg, the New York Times, New York magazine, and the Daily Beast. They even got to cover a preseason NFL football game.
Talk about dreaming big: A group of kids meet with the titans of journalism before their senior year of high school. I was reminded of that magnificent, oversized office I had prior to plunging into the real world.
So I offered some advice. Don’t be afraid to start small in this business, partly because you may not have the choice of starting at the top tier of media companies, and partly because starting small might be a better path than you think.
I couldn’t have begun any lower on the journalism ladder of the day — as a newspaper boy for the Binghamton, NY, Evening Press, which led to a summer job in the sports department, showing up at 7 a.m. sharp four mornings a week and Saturday nights until 1 a.m. to write headlines, take reports from stock car races, bowling alleys, and softball leagues, and to occasionally cover a Class D minor league baseball team.
The job taught me a lot:
How to recognize the expectations of a professional office — on my first day I showed up without a necktie and was taken aside for a quiet chat. The next day I wore the necktie.
How to interact with editors. I was amazed at the Press when the first edition of the paper (the “one-star”) rolled off the presses. Reporters scanned their articles looking for words that had been changed, sentences that had been deleted. Editors would be challenged, reporters would be criticized. At the end of the day everyone had learned a little.
How to believe that what you are doing is important — to you if not to anyone else, no matter how trivial your current assignment might appear to be.
At the end of my college career I jumped from the big office at 48 University Place to a much smaller office (but also much more lucrative position) in the Time-Life Building in Manhattan. But then I had the chance to quit Time and enter the freelance game, where I thought I would have a better chance to develop my own storytelling voice.
I worked for national publications, state publications, and the weekly community newspaper. I was pinch hitting for the Town Topics when a small story presented itself about a group of young people who had purchased a house on Hodge Road in the western section of town. The neighbors were so put off by the group that they banded together, made the group an offer they couldn’t refuse, and reclaimed the house to sell later to a single family. I wrote up the story for the Topics, dug deeper into the workings of the group, and ended up with a 4,000-word story in New Jersey Monthly exposing the tactics of a cult known as the Circle of Friends.
A few years later I was kibitzing with the Town Topics editors about some Route 1 hotels fighting for bookings from the emerging new corporate business community. That’s not a Princeton story, the editors contended, that’s a Route 1 story. Hmm. A small story, with a big upside.
Through it all I never did get that big office with the conference table. And to this day I am still rooting around the office looking for decent pencils and those reporters’ notebooks, the cool 4-inch by 8-inch spiral bound notebooks.
At the end of my brief talk to the Summer Journalism Program, after all the students have left the room, I notice a stack of reporters’ notebooks and pencils. Both the notebooks and the pencils are custom-designed with the words “JOURNALISM/PRINCETON.” Instinctively I grab a notebook and three pencils. It may never again be as good as it is now on the Princeton University campus.