Discovering journalism in college saved me. At the time (1976) I was on a track that would have led to an assistant manager’s job at an Applebees. Seriously: I was a business management major at SUNY Buffalo, living at my mother’s house to save money, working nights and weekends at a banquet hall as a busboy, and without any passions other than playing pick-up basketball in four different gyms four nights a week, despite the fact that I wasn’t even good enough to make my high school team. I had no ambition because I didn’t know how to have an ambition. I wasn’t excited about learning and didn’t know what I was good at.
But then I walked into the college newspaper with a good story, and the editor who happened to be there, Brett Kline, said, “why don’t you write about it?” So I did. My piece was published, I got bitten by the journalism bug, and within six months I was special features editor of The Spectrum, then managing editor. In the spring of 1978 I was elected editor-in-chief for the following academic year. I was also a columnist. I rarely went to class. I was learning too much to stop and do that.
It was in the spring of 1977 that I decided that I wanted to become a professional journalist– a political reporter. Basically I wanted to be Johnny Apple, the legendary correspondent for the New York Times, who seemed to be on the front page every other morning. In those days the way you got to be a correspondent for the New York Times or the Washington Post was by 1.) rising in the hierarchy at your college newspaper, or going to a decent J-school; 2.) grabbing an internship at the biggest metro daily you could talk your way onto; 3.) doing well enough in the assignments you were given to get hired at that newspaper or a comparable one in your region; 4.) generating the “clips” (copies of your by-lined articles) that would allow you to jump in a year or two from Buffalo, Columbus, Birmingham or Norfolk to, say, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta or Baltimore; 5.) repeating step 4.) until you had the clips to get hired by the Post or the Times, which could take many years; and 6.) starting on the metro desk in New York or Washington until you got the call to report on the statehouse or the national scene.