Why I am Not a Journalist: A True Story

The short answer is: I wanted to be, but I screwed it up, so I couldn't be.

28 Sep 2010 3:31 am 77 Comments

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.

That’s where Woodward and Bernstein were when they stumbled onto Watergate: the metro desk. Howard Kurtz had been editor of The Spectrum a few years before me, and he made it to a national beat at the Washington Post. Ron Brownstein was editor of The Pipe Dream at SUNY Binghamton the same year I was editor at SUNY BUffalo. He became one of the top political reporters in Washington. It would not be easy, but my plan was at least plausible. And plausible was better than Applebees.

Replacement reporter

Having succeeded at step 1.) in the summer of 1978 I went on to step 2.) That is, I persuaded the Buffalo Courier-Express, the morning daily in town, to hire me as a summer “replacement reporter.” This title referred to a provision of the union contract. It meant you filled in on any desk that was short handed because of summer vacations. Perfect for a young reporter because you got experience with a range of stories. I covered town board meetings, phoning in four paragraphs from the field that ran the next day. I did time on the business desk, reporting on local companies. I covered the auto show at Eastern Hills Mall, a 4th of July parade on Hertel Avenue, the fears of homeowners in the Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, who were living on land that had been a toxic waste dump.

When an old hospital closed and a new one opened, a special unit of the Army that specialized in medical evacuations came in to move the sickest patients. They sent me to cover that. I returned during winter break to fill in for reporters taking time off, and I covered the scene at a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve and kids stuck in the hospital on Christmas Day. I also worked the night police beat, which meant phoning around to all the local police departments: “Courier Express calling; anything happening?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the reply would be, “Nah, it’s quiet,” or “Nah, pretty quiet.” Always the same words, always the same tone.

One night the officer on duty in Hamburg, NY startled me when he said, “Well, we got this kidnapping thing….” Breaking news! I sprung into action, not knowing that 99 percent of the time a “kidnapping thing” is really a marital dispute that involves custody of a child. That was the case in Hamburg, but it was still news and the night editor wanted an item in the paper next day. We had about 20 minutes to deadline, so as I completed each sentence he took it out of my typewriter for editing, then sent it along to the composing room. I hung around making some calls for a follow-up story the next day and when I left the office at around midnight, I saw the papers rolling off the big presses with my little kidnapping thing on the front page.

That was magical.

Which is to say that I did catch some of the romance of newspaper journalism. The newsroom of the Courier Express was not that far removed from the classic imagery found in the great newspaper movies of the 1930s and 1940s, like The Front Page (1931) or His Girl Friday (1940). We banged away on dirty typewriters, writing in triplicate on carbon paper. People smoked and swore in the newsroom. The grime from the ink on the presses got over everything in the building. There was a crusty old city editor named Jim Cleary from central casting. He didn’t like fancy writing. And we were always in a war with the Buffalo Evening News, the richer, more staid and more establishment paper.

Douglas Turner and me

The editor of the Courier-Express was Douglas Turner, a volatile man with a booming voice who took an initial liking to me because I could write what was called a “feature lede.” My stories brightened up the prose of the paper. I did well as a replacement reporter, with more than ten front page stories. So well that Turner wanted me to stay on, quit school, and keep working for the Courier-Express after my summer turn was over. He was offering me a full-time job. But I couldn’t accept it, first because I had been elected editor of The Spectrum and that promised to be a blast; second because I couldn’t imagine explaining to my (Jewish) mother that I was quitting college to run away with the journalism circus. So I said no.

I was surprised and relieved when Turner accepted that decision with a minimum of fuss and offered me the same job, but to start in May 1979, after I graduated. Now I could finish my degree, have fun running the college newspaper and keep writing my column. Plus I had a guaranteed job that would put me me on step 3.) along my path to becoming Johnny Apple. Turner understood the plan. He said he didn’t expect me to be in Buffalo long, maybe two or three years, but that it was a good place to get basic training.

Around January 1979 I started to wonder if I had made the right choice. I had taken the first job offered me. Was that wise? How did I know that Buffalo was the biggest market where I could hope to land a reporting position? I hadn’t even looked around. So I decided to at least look. The way you did that back then was to scan the ads that ran in Editor and Publisher, the leading trade journal for the newspaper industry. I didn’t see much that I was qualified for, but there was one position I thought was a possible match: “Northeast Daily: General Assignment Reporter.” One to two years experience… good clips… strong writing skills. With a little stretching (I had only four months experience) I could claim to be a sound candidate. So I applied. But I wasn’t disappointed when I heard nothing back. I could tell myself I had looked for a job. The Courier Express it would be! Which beat would they give me?

“You’ll have to sue me to find out.”

In April I was supposed to contact Doug Turner about a starting date. I did so by calling his office. He wasn’t in and didn’t return my call. I called him again. No call back. I called him a third time. Nothing. Thinking he was too busy to answer his phone, I wrote him a note. He didn’t reply to my note. I wrote him a second note. Again, no reply. Now it’s mid-May and I have graduated from college. Turner ignored my third note, too. But why? In my desperation and confusion I went down to the newspaper and headed straight to his office.

“Do you remember me? You wanted me to quit school and come to work for you. You promised me a job after graduation. Now you won’t even talk to me… What is going on here?”

Turner wouldn’t look directly at me. He said, “There’s an explanation, but you’ll have to sue me to find out.” Then he picked up the phone and had the security guard escort me from the building. As the guard marched me downstairs and showed me to the door I formed a distinct impression that I would never work for the Courier Express. And I never did.

Lurid fantasies flooded my mind. Did I have enemies in town? Had there been a whispering campaign? Was there a background check that found something… distasteful? I had no clue, but I did know that my journalism career was in peril. The major argument for why I deserved a job was my experience at the Courier Express, but the editor who had been responsible for giving me that shot now saw me as some sort of undesirable, for reasons I could not detect.

Birth of a media critic

That wasn’t the only strange thing that happened to me in Buffalo. As an editor at The Spectrum, I reported on a lawsuit the Courier-Express had filed against the Buffalo Evening News, charging anti-competitive practices. (A desperate move.) Some of the people who talked to me were anonymous sources at the two newspapers. One day there was knock on my apartment door and I was served with a subpoena. To my astonishment it was from attorneys for the Evening News. They intended to find out who my sources were, because they thought it could help their case.

In 1978, Myron Farber, a reporter for The New York Times, served jail time for refusing to identify a source. That case was in the news when my subpoena arrived. Here was a newspaper threatening a student journalist with contempt of court if he didn’t reveal his sources. Extraordinary! I consulted with some law professors at SUNY Buffalo, and they assured me they would take the case pro bono if the Evening News actually tried to force me to reveal my sources. But I had to go to the deposition alone. I was 21.

The attorney for the News asked me multiple questions trying to get me to name names, but I refused. He said I could face jail time and a fine. I told him I had gone to the library and found editorials the Buffalo Evening News had written about the Myron Farber case; they came out very strongly for the rights of reporters to protect their sources. Why the change of heart? I said. The attorney for the Courier-Express smiled. Despite the threats, I never heard a thing after I refused to cooperate. But as a result of that incident there was no way I could beg the Buffalo Evening News for a job after my fiasco with the Courier-Express.

I left town with the Doug Turner mystery unsolved and resumed my restaurant career in Washington, DC. My plan was to freelance some pieces and perhaps get back in the game that way. It didn’t go very well. But in January of 1980, I read an article in The Nation magazine by Neil Postman, a media critic and professor at NYU. It was called “The Metaphor in the Machine.” Postman argued that when we look at communications technologies we should realize that they are not just “neutral conveyances but active participants in how we see and what we think.” I was taken with this idea and with the author’s bio. “Neil Postman teaches in the Media Ecology Program at New York University.”

I had never heard the term–media ecology–but I understood instantly what it meant. Postman seemed to know something I now wanted to know: how to study media for a living. This became my new ambition. The next day I took the train to New York to meet him. I enrolled in his graduate program in the fall of 1980 and eventually got a PhD, returning to journalism as a scholar and press critic. (And I later wrote for The Nation.) So it all worked out in the end. I never sued Douglas Turner. I never worked again as a journalist.

The mystery is resolved

A few years later, through a friend who had a friend who worked at the Courier-Express, the mystery was solved. My case was a newsroom legend. It turns out that the job I had applied for, “Northeast Daily: General Assignment Reporter…” was for an opening at the Courier-Express. Yes. But I didn’t know this because in the standard format for those ads the newspaper was never named. You applied to a box number. The employer was described vaguely. What you were supposed to do is write on the envelope, “Do not forward to the Dayton Daily News” if you worked at the Dayton Daily News and didn’t want your boss to know you were on the prowl for something better. But I didn’t know any of that.

Not only had I stupidly applied to the newspaper that had already offered me a job, but it was my job they were advertising in Editor and Publisher! Yes. Turner had to post the opening to fulfill legal requirements; in reality he had reserved that slot for me. When he got my application he obviously considered it an act of disloyalty, and that’s why he ceased all communication. So I lost my job by applying for my job. And that was the (slightly) kafkaesque turn that ended my newsroom career.

Almost thirty years later, after something I had written got noticed by Jim Romenesko (the blogger and ex-newspaper man whose site at Poynter.org is watched by almost everyone in daily journalism) I got an email from Doug Turner. He didn’t seem to remember our history together. The Courier Express was sold in August 1979 and it folded in 1982; like most cities Buffalo turned into a one-newspaper town. Turner became the Washington bureau chief for the Buffalo News (now owned by Warren Buffet) and he just wanted to trade some ideas with me.

Since I had his email address, I sent him a draft copy of this post to see if I could jog his memory and get some answers. My questions were three: did he remember any of this? Was there anything that needed correction or additional context? And finally… why? (Meaning: Why had he reacted that way?) Yesterday he replied. This is what he said, in its entirety.

It was nice of you to send this to me.

Maybe in a few days my memory will be jogged more than it is now. Your excerpt raises some very unpleasant memories of the spring of 1979 and so I am going to ruminate a bit.

We’re both aware fortunately that the events you describe happened more than 30 years ago. I wish that my recollection of my conversations with interns such as yourself was as firm as those with whom I worked closely for a year or two. Yet “sue me for it” does sound like me in those days.

By 1979 almost every hiring decision in the newsroom was handled by Assistant Managing Editor Donald Barry. I delegated to him almost all hiring, labor relations, budgeting and other administrative issues after he had suffered a severe heart attack when was doing an able job as chief city editor. Even though it was widely known the paper was losing money, Barry was able to bring in a squad of disaffected folks from the Gannett system, experienced able journalists from journalism schools. One of his hires was Carol Stevens, now one of the top editors at USAToday.

I did the hiring in the early 70s and recruited folks like Michael Hiltzik, Jo-Anne Armao and Tom Toles. And I do recall offering Howard Kurtz a job.

By the spring of 1979, the newsroom was in great turmoil with rumors circulating that the paper had been sold to Cowles Media (I think it was then called Minneapolis Star-Tribune Co.) and members of our owner Conners family denying it. I first heard about the rumor in March, 1979. After Cowles bought it, they imposed a hiring freeze for a time.

I am of course in no position to refute any of your recollection of events, but in any case I would have done then what Don Barry advised me to do. I do recall that he and I believed that it would be irresponsible to bring any career applicant into such an environment of flux, maybe even hazard, nor did we dare speak of the reasons for fear that our discussing a possible sale — when our then present owners were furiously denying it — would soon cost us our own jobs.

Don Barry would have been responsible for placing the ad — probably in E&P — and he would have been the person screening the applications. I am sorry that you were escorted from the building, but I don’t recall it. I don’t remember calling security on that or any other occasion; perhaps Don did, or my secretary did.

You as a student of our business (former business?) are familiar with stories of the tensions surrounding the closing, sale or down sizing of newspapers and can understand the emotions that erupt in those circumstances.

Yours is an interesting anecdote. But you made out well, as I did after being suddenly “shot” and sent to Washington in 1981. Good luck with this exercise, and you are, as I said above, good to share it with me prior to publication. It being your blog, it is up to you whether to include any of my comments in it. Good hearing from you again.

So there you have it: why I am not journalist, even though I wanted to be.

Look: I was young, I was ignorant, and I didn’t have anyone to consult who could warn me away from the mistake I made. You could say I had bad luck, but I have never seen it that way. I got out of Buffalo and made it to Manhattan. I now have a great job. I contribute to journalism in my own way. And the Church of the Savvy probably would have expelled me in due course.


Mac Rutan says:

This was a fun read. I could smell the newsroom. My favorite line: “He didn’t like fancy writing” made me recall a book “The Word” by Rene J. Cappon that was put out by AP. Thanks for putting this aspect of your history online.

With the current transitions in media, I love to see the wisdom of traditional journalism be recorded and preserved. What is becoming of the media feels like the sacking of the libraries of Alexandria, only in very slow motion.

I’m really pleased to have found this blog and your writings. They inspire me and hopefully will also inspire my students.

Ditto, very entertaining. So real, especially Turner not remembering any additional information, but telling a story anyway.

Speaking of story, I found the long advice post (on posterous). Could only skim it now – sleep … too … powerful – but I didn’t see anything about story, you know, a good yarn. Did I miss it, it goes without saying, or door number 3?

I love your blog. I too came into journalism with a lot of missteps since no one in the family worked for newspapers.
My college professor told me I would never succeed. The same professor came to my newsroom and never remembered saying it. Everyone in the newsroom viewed his advice as outdated.
I have been a writer in a newsroom now for over a decade and just published a children’s book. Guess he was wrong.

Amy Wood says:

I too began my journalistic path at a local paper and the newsroom details take me back to my Patent Trader Days as a volunteer high school writer In Mt. Kisco NY. Print was a fine way to grow my teeth and evolve toward TV by the time I studied and graduated. “Didn’t like fancy words” in my shop either.
Enjoy your work, and really enjoyed this glimpse of your career journey.

Fascinating read. I have a similar story of missing the journalism boat after being bitten by the bug. Mine is also a story of not knowing and missteps. Although I’m an avid lay student of media studies, I ended up a lawyer.

You mean there was a time when you need a newspaper to make you a journalist? How quaint.

But seriously, I think newspapers – and all news sites – are where journalists go to die. There are those who survive long enough at a newspaper to finally become a journalist, the journalist they always thought they could be, but they are rare (ex Woodward). The rest simply type stories somebody else thought of and think they actually reported it.

As you’re someone who vociferously champions “This is where I’m coming from” over the View from Nowhere, it’s a pleasure to read where you came from 😉

Amy Heller says:

My aspirations to become a journalist were stifled by… NYU. I entered as a transfer student in 1979 gung-ho to become an ace reporter. But the journalism major was so flooded with Woodward and Bernstein wannabes that I couldn’t get into any classes. I think I took one entry-level reporting class and then moved on the history department. I did work for an independent paper on campus (the NY Torch), interned on a union publication and worked briefly for a fashion magazine. Eventually I got a masters in history (elsewhere) and then found my niche in the independent film distribution world. I now work with and admire many writers and reviewers. But like you, I am not regretful about the way things turned out.

Re: “You’ll have to sue me”—

My father worked for UPI from 1959 until its sale in the late 70s. He told me that more than once, big media organizations would run up bills for thousands, and would send a check for a fraction of the amount. When my father would call up asking where the rest of the money was, the answer would be, “You’ll have to sue us.”

Media is full of low-down, dirty, backstabbing sons-of-bitches who cover their own ass, will kiss your ass when it looks like you’ve been favored by the boss, and who will act like they don’t know you when trouble starts.

And then there is the downside… 🙂

Great read. It’s comforting, in a strange, morbid way, to know that rookie mistakes like this didn’t effect just me – or you or anyone. When I was an aspiring journalist and college sophomore in New York in the 90s, I was called for an interview at a big national magazine. It was for a summer internship – which, at the time, I didn’t know were coveted things – and I said “No, I am looking for a fall internship.” Big mistake.

Yes, it was. But you survived it.

You know, I’ve always wondered where and how you got your start, Jay. Fascinating story. Thanks for being so open.

What’s notable to me is your ambition to BE a journalist, as opposed to DOING journalism. Many of us who were similarly bitten by the bug in college might have had dreams of becoming Johnny Apple or Woodward or Sid Schanberg. But we stuck it out in the newsroom (for 35 years in my case) because, as the motivation of those dreams inevitably faded, it was replaced by the compulsion to simply find out what happened next and write it.

As opposed to doing it? Not sure what you mean. My ambition was to become a journalist by doing it in a professional newsroom. And that is what I was busy doing before the events I describe here happened. I wasn’t sitting around dreaming about one day being a journalist. I was doing the work.

Nice piece Jay! Sounds like you would have made a terrific reporter. Keep up the great media criticism.

When I was a young reporter in Connecticut in the eighties, I remember that many of the smart, ambitious people in the newsroom had career aspirations similar to yours–that is, leapfrogging from one paper to bigger ones on the strength of strong work and great clips. I interviewed one year at the Hartford Courant. The hiring guy (he wasn’t a working journalist, I don’t think, but something like assistant ME/personnel) told me, “We’re not looking to hire careerists.”

I assured him I was no careerist, but I always wish I’d pleaded guilty and said, “Well, if by careerist you mean someone who’s going to work harder, and dig deeper, and produce better stories, and come to work with more passion that others, I’m your guy.”

I didn’t get the job and I stayed where I was for a while. I rose to the top of the ranks of reporters there, then I became a columnist, then an editor. Then I moved out of the newspaper industry because most newspapers didn’t (don’t) pay a wage that allows much more than a minimalist living.

Bob Fredericks says:

One question: Who cares?

I’m afraid I don’t understand your question, though I admit I can be dense sometimes.

Ah, there, you see, at last it’s confirmed. Somewhere out there is a large body of people included in that “Who” that knows better than to care about things that nobody cares about, and I am not one of them somehow. I think that makes me one of the nobodies. Maybe it is because I am a literature major (“Nothing is too little for so little a creature as man,” said Samuel Johnson–a journalist, yes, but he wrote opinions) and literature is about all kinds of stuff that nobody cares about, especially individual experiences, you know, about the things that happen to one person at a time and, thereby, about what can happen to one person at a time, which is, oddly, the way everything happens to most of us.

Changing careers from literature to journalism I was almost immediately struck by the narrative poverty of the conventions of journalistic storytelling as they were taught at the Very Big and Famous Journalism School I attended. I mean, we refresh our stories by questioning and reflecting on experience. Without looking at what happens to one person at a time, we start to get sloppy and thoughtless in our telling of what happens to everybody, we think in cliches and stereotypes, and we go looking for what confirms them, and then we get played by people who know that if they give us stories in the forms we’ve become habituated to there’s no risk of our critical faculties waking up.

Having had my own experience of questioning the way journalism is practiced I am interested in hearing about similar experiences from thoughtful people. The question “Who cares?” is one of those journalistic cliches. The sooner it is dead, the better. The only way to know who cares is by putting the story out there and finding out.

Mayhill Fowler says:

Beautiful piece, Jay. Hope to re-read someday in a compendium of your work. Jogs my memory about a rookie mistake, when I was rookie age. 1967. Interview for summer internship at the Washington Post. City editor asked my opinion of Malcolm X. I pulled a Palin, because I knew absolutely nothing about him. For two years at Vassar, my head had been in the clouds, musing about great lit-er-a-tur. Now, thoroughly humiliated, I determined to keep up with current events. Discovered a love of American history. My classmate Lucinda Franks (now Morgenthau) got the job and went on to win a Pulitzer for some great work she did, just after graduation, on the Weathermen. She was the first woman to receive the prize for newspaper reporting.

Great post. Journalists (or, in this case, an almost journalist) tell the best stories about themselves and their madcap profession, don’t they?

Applebee’s was founded in 1980.


Jay wrote: “At the time (1976) I was on a track that would have led to an assistant manager’s job at an Applebees.”

Dan, you seem to be implying that Jay’s facts are off. But, in ’76 he was “on a track”—and he graduated in ’79. So, in his defense, his supposition is entirely plausible, no?

But that’s minutia. More importantly, excellent and interesting piece, Jay (and greetings from a one-time Buffalo News “stringer”—circa late ’80s).

Janice L. Greene says:

The experience Jay shares resembles so many others to a T, and, to some extent, mine as well. I am saving it to share with my own students if and when I return to the classroom. I find this ironic as well because I interviewed with Jay Rosen and others for an NYU journalism teaching job many years ago, but never heard why I was not hired. Rather, I should say, I never heard until years later through the grapevine. Hmmmm

Jay – You had no mentor to guide you, really, through the early stages of a journalism career. But we both found the best possible mentor in Neil Postman for the subsequent careers. It’s all good. It happened for a reason.

Told from, and felt in, the viscera; thanks, Dr. Rosen.

Had Doug Turner taken you on staff in May ’79, knowing you’d searched for rosier possibilities, he would have had you by the eggs for the duration of your tenure. The story would’ve been a recurring newsroom favorite and at your repeated expense. His take, that he was looking after your well-being due to impending ownership change, is the far-more-likely reason – which is outstanding.

My faith in fate is stronger than ever. Great JOURNALISM, Jay. Thank you for sharing this.

Frank Rizzo says:

I was working at the Courier Express during the time you mention. Sorry to say I don’t remember you, Jay. I was on the copy desk at the time — one of a handful of young people hired to liven up the desk among a group of older reporters who had, for one reason or another, been relegated to the copy desk to serve out their careers.

I do recall Doug Turner well. He could be mercurial (a character trait I later found was shared by higher editors at several other newspapers). He took a chance on hiring a young editor from the Ithaca Journal and always treated me well.

The copy desk was of the classic shape — a round outer desk along which the editors sat, facing slot editor Bert Nelson, who ruled from the center slot. We edited with pencils, resorting to gluepots and brushes to slather torn sheets of newsprint together after editing stories. (I think the newsroom spikes already had disappeared by this time — too dangerous, according to OSHA.) Artists Mike Ricigliano and Tom Toles occupied a short hallway-like niche nearby.

It was also a time when the computer was being adopted by newsrooms — eventually even by the Courier. As I recall, we picked up an ATEX system — cheap — from the recently defunct Cleveland Press. Older reporters and editors feared the impending changes, wondering whether it would be better for them to retire rather than try to learn a new system of working. Some did retire. I and the other younger employees eagerly explored the new technology.

I filled in from time to time as a wire editor, and eventually was promoted to national editor — about the time that Cowles bought the paper. I loved the CE and was proud to work there until its very last day.

Later jobs took me to the Chicago Sun-Times, back to the surviving Buffalo paper, The News, and eventually to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I worked for 19 years in various editing capacities in its Features department.

The Courier was one of the last bastions of traditional old-time journalism, and I’ve always been glad I had the chance to experience it.

Jack Connors says:

You described it perfectly. After languishing in the morgue I was given my chance on the copy desk and then the metro desk. It was a great group of people to work with until the end. The last edition is on the wall above my monitor.
Still in Buffalo, publishing now.

Moira S says:

I was working for Atex at the time (early 80’s) and traveled up and down the East Coast installing systems as an “applications specialist” which meant I stayed on-site 5 weeks or more after the sale went through, training the crotchety editors who hated technology and resented the fact they’d have to change the way they worked. I didn’t have to work in Buffalo (thank god) but spent much time at Philadelphia Inquirer, Chilton Press in Radner PA, New England Journal of Medicine . . . I tried to convey my love of print and my respect to those working in journalism. Those were trying times.

Never has been a journalist …never will be a journalist…

but what he definitely is, is a blowhard who treats others within the journalism community with a lot of disrespect.

Robert Cohen says:

. . . and you, sir, with all “due” respect, are kind of a jerk.

Love this post. This brings to mind the start of my own journalistic career. After interning for a summer at the daily in Ventura, Calif., I returned to my senior year at school and then was offered a job at the Ventura paper. This predated your experience but just a few years. Yes, I did take the job.

Jay, having read so much of your scholarship and criticism, I found it more than interesting to read your recollections about your rites of de-initiation. It inspires two thoughts, and excuse me if they seem too psycho-analytical.

The first is to wonder why you frame this experience as a “mistake.” What you frame as “disloyalty” looks a lot like “ambition” to me. That ambition looks less like careerism and more like wanting to do the best work possible in the most professional setting. Related to this is the notion that you are “not” a journalist, which may have been more true then, but is certainly not true now in the emerging understanding of who a journalist is, and what a journalist does.

Your story also invites the analysis that you one expression of your career — especially as one of the most influential critics of the news media — is to “get back” at the community that expelled you. I have something analogous in my background, which is to get back at Princeton, and the Ivy League in general, for not accepting my applications to college and graduate school.
I think part of my professional ambition is to prove that they made a mistake.

There’s a bit of Groucho Marx in your narrative, perhaps. Wasn’t he the one who said he’d never want to be a member of a club who would accept him? Thanks for another provocative essay. And, as for your destiny, remember that “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Thanks, Roy. Ambition: yes, certainly. Am I actually a journalist, after all? Well, what I really meant is: I am not a creature of the newsroom, not that I never do anything that counts as journalism. Getting back at…? Perhaps I am out of touch with myself, but I have not felt that. Not saying it isn’t there.

Absolutely fascinating. And I can _completely_ relate to the naive 21-year-old since, in that regard, little has changed for me …

Oh spare me all this windy verbiage from a guy who actually has, in fact, very thin real newspaper experience … but a real skill in self-promotion

Strange. When I want to spare myself the windy verbiage of a mere self-promoter, I simply don’t click, and don’t read. You seem to find that solution unsatisfactory for some reason. Try it. It works.

Robert Cohen says:


Great story. I interned two summers (’75 and ’76) on the copydesk at The Buffalo Evening News. All through the summer of ’76 I kept hearing from friends at the Courier-Express that they were going to hire me but for months nothing happened and I finally ended up taking a job with a local PR/ad agency.

I came home one Friday night about six weeks into my new career and my mother told me Doug Turner had called. Nervously, I called him back and in his booming, gruff voice, he practically shouted at me, “I want to hire you as a copyeditor, when can you start?”

I agonized over the offer all weekend but decided to stay with the agency and when I called Doug to tell him of my decision, he could not have been more gracious. He said I was with a great agency and wished me well.

I now own my own agency in Buffalo with 45 employees and Doug and I are friends on Facebook. He is a great man who has played a major role in countless careers and I will never forget the kindness he extended to me.

Jay, the thing that struck me the most (since I already heard most of the story last week) was how you said in the end that the Church of the Savvy would have probably expelled you in the end anyhow. What is is about journalists, seemingly more than other professions, that resists criticism with such ferocity? I know lawyers, doctors, traders and others in other fields who usually admit quite freely and openly the things about their fields that need improvement or reform. Why are journalists/those in the media in particular so resistant?

I think many in journalism ARE receptive to critiques that come from Jay and others. I certainly am, even if I don’t always agree with him. Obviously some in journalism take offence. That’s inevitable when a critic suggest that a field has systemic structural or cultural issues that need examination. But it’d be a mistake to think that journalists don’t listen or heed.

Fleurdamour says:

Thank you, I really related to this. In 1995, I decided to transition from a bachelors’ degree in art history and a budding art gallery career path to become an arts and culture reporter. I couldn’t afford any more schooling, but with training in arts criticism from school and experience writing ad copy and artist bios for the gallery, I landed a gig with a new arts and entertainment paper in my Texas town. It died after ten issues, but by then I had a little portfolio of published articles to add to the gallery work and I took off for New York City.

Yes, I went to NYC with only a slender folder of work (and $900), but I managed to land temp assignments at media companies, which transitioned into a series of temporary editorial assistant gigs at Time Inc. as I gained skills and experience. I also started writing for local magazines covering the NYC arts scene. After two years, I made a real effort to get hired in some more solid capacity at Time Inc., but found them resistant to my unorthodox background, even though they were part of it, and ended up leaving the company. I was very upset, but I think I dodged a bullet – it was right at the time they disastrously merged with AOL and opportunities there dried up while they struggled with the aftermath.

I considered j-school, but still couldn’t afford it, so I kept freelancing and applying to other media companies, but then the dotbomb came along, followed by 9/11. I had gone to NYC to figure out how to build a career in traditional media but, as it turns out, I actually got front row seats for the unprecedented changes to that world wrought by the internet and global events. I took a straight job but kept working on my own, and ended up writing a book more in line with my original studies, and I’ve since written a second one. That’s something I probably would not have found time for if I had had a career at Time Inc.

I still freelance some, but I’ve realized I really am more of a creative and scholarly writer than a reporter. I plan to get a master’s degree at some point so I can teach and do research, and will continue to write books (I have four more started). I count my blessings that I didn’t spend a huge amount of money on a journalism degree because it’s a different world now and it would not have been right for me. I worked with what I had in strange times, and ended up carving out an individual path instead of a traditional one. I also got a lot out of my system that I always would have wondered about if I’d taken the safe route and stayed in Texas.

The only thing I would change is that I wish people would remember that kids have limited resources and a huge learning curve, and that anyone coming into an environment new to them is sometimes going to resemble a fool. Time Inc. was ultimately unforgiving of that, which is why in the end I couldn’t gain traction there despite a promising start, but that same rigidity made them a bad fit for someone like me, anyway. I think your mistake with the Courier was stunning, but if I had been the editor, I would have talked to you about it before I summarily dismissed you. It seems like you were operating out of fear and youthful inexperience more than disloyalty. And maybe you had some intuition that the offer wasn’t stable, which is what drove you to look elsewhere. I would never blame anyone for trying to hedge their bets to make sure they’d be able to eat after graduation (especially because thanks to my scrappy early career, I know what it’s like to live on one NYC streetcart hot dog a day).

Doug Hock says:

I loved this and found it somewhat familiar. I attended a J-school in the Midwest at approximately the same time and had a similar, though much less noteworthy, experience. I was always amazed by the fact that while my business major buddies were being recruited by accounting firms, insurance companies,banks, etc., newspapers seemed to have some type of secret code that had to be cracked in order to even get your foot in the door. Church of the Savvy, indeed!

That sounds like a confusing experience for a 21-year-old. I am not 21, and I’m still confused.

But if you’ll pardon my asking: Could it also be said that you are not a journalist because you decided you wanted to study media, got a PhD and never looked back?

I’m not disputing your framing – just suggesting more benevolent language. It seems to me that, like one or two commenters above, you realized there was something else you’d rather do.

If, deep down, you were still a creature of the newsroom, surely there were other newsrooms out there. It’s not like you weren’t permanently blacklisted everywhere… were you?

“What is is about journalists, seemingly more than other professions, that resists criticism with such ferocity? I know lawyers, doctors, traders and others in other fields who usually admit quite freely and openly…”

I’m related to staunch defenders of the legal/medicinal/academic fields. And in my experience they take themselves *quite* seriously. (Having asked about a cancelled newspaper subscription once, for example, I was told they had not cared for the coverage of “the academy.”)

Journalism might have become too hierarchical for its own good. But it’s no more hierarchical than those other fields; they just build their sacred orders around paying a small fortune for a certain degree. You can’t learn the full contours of journalism from a classroom. It requires on-the-job training, and that means accepting the values of the newsroom.

“Somewhere out there is a large body of people included in that ‘Who’ that knows better than to care about things that nobody cares about, and I am not one of them somehow. I think that makes me one of the nobodies. Maybe it is because I am a literature major.”

I think the idea was supposed to be: they know because they’re paid to spend all their time watching for and chasing after news. If you’d rather read literature, or stand around arguing about their socialization precepts, that doesn’t make you better or worse. But perhaps it means you’d be happier doing that.

That should have said: “It’s not like you were permanently blacklisted everywhere… were you?”

“Permanently blacklisted everywhere…” No, I was not. “Could it also be said that you are not a journalist because you decided you wanted to study media, got a PhD and never looked back?” I suppose so, yes. It could also be said that if the events I described had not happened, I would have continued along the path I was on in newsroom journalism and not looked back. In other words… The answer to the question, “why I am not a journalist” is the entire essay, not one thing in it.

Since this seems to be a story that might easily have ended with you stuck in restaurants forever doing work you didn’t love, I wonder if you think your younger self 1) should have walked off the sting of the Buffalo rejection and found somewhere smaller — maybe even MUCH smaller — to get started in newspapers; 2) should have been less impatient to get to the Times or the Post and more aware that journalists out in the hinterlands sometimes find ways to have satisfying, significant careers engaged in that “struggle to make the fiction of an informed and engaged public more factual.”

At the time, I wasn’t thinking about it, because I needed to get out of Buffalo, where I had grown up, and Turner was actually encouraging me to work a few years for him and then move on to a larger market… but in time I came to question whether journalists should be doing journalism in towns they were planning to leave behind, and I began to ask myself what the costs of that pattern were.

Laurence Roy Stains says:

Wait, what? DOUG TURNER IS STILL ALIVE?! His “mercurial nature” didn’t lay him out? That’s wonderful news, because for all his volatility, he was an editor who constantly sought out young talent, and genuinely cared about their progress. Reading this, I’m buying his explanation: that he didn’t want to bring you into a newsroom on the verge of oblivion. I was a summer replacement reporter at the Courier in 1974, and Turner was the closest thing I had to a mentor. I couldn’t get a job with him when I got out of Columbia’s J-School in 1975, and shortly thereafter I fled to magazines, and am now teaching at Temple. What do you think Turner saw in you, Jay? Someone who could try to change journalism? And isn’t that what you’re doing?

I really, really appreciated reading this. I have always wondered about how you got your start as well and I’m sure that many can relate to you. I suppose you could say, that give or take a few years, I am where you were in 1979, and while I am freelancing, which includes work for Spot.us, I have these terrible waves of depression about the journalism industry. It comes and goes, but it’s comforting to know that someone who I admire and respect in the world of media has a story like this to tell. Thank you for sharing.

Thank you, Liana.

Jay, this is a great read — despite the fact that I was already familiar with most of the plot.

Rich Korman (your old Specrum “boss”) told me you’d posted it — otherwise I might very well have missed it — as I mostly check your tweets on FB.

I’m going to get personal here — which is to say that I have this inchoate feeling that like the rest of your cohorts (us tail-end boomers) — you’re growing more reflective and nostalgic now that you’re securely parked in the “weigh station” of middle age.

Maybe (just maybe), you’re contemplating reconnecting/reconciling with your old UB college buds and colleagues — who after all are not only less savvy, but more honest, down to earth, and (dare I say), more intelligent in the final analysis — than the jostling careerists in the professional/semi-professional/academic realm you and many others among “us” had chosen to ensconce themselves.

Which is not to say that you can’t have a successful career and still remain a “nice” person.

Am I totally off base here?

And shall I say hello for you to Dave Davidson, Susie Gray, Denise Stumpo, Rebecca Bernstein, and others when I’m in Buffalo in 2 weeks?

Tom Buchanan says:

@Robert: Thanks for sharing this link on your Facebook page. Photojournalism was my calling in those days, but I caught the bug in high school. The Spectrum became a key progression point, and Jay was an inspirational leader who let me do some crazy stories and build experiences I’ll never forget. Heck, he sent me to Three Mile Island to cover the nuclear accident in a rental car with the tab picked up by The Spectrum. He made only two “demands,” the first being to do good work (I think his words were “kick ass”), and the second was not to sue The Spectrum in 30 years for cancer. My internships were at the UB University News Bureau and WKBW-TV. Both offered full time jobs, but after agonizing I turned them down and went to the Auburn (New York) Citizen to begin my official career. The Spectrum, like many top college newspaper was where a generation of reporters learned their craft. If we were lucky we were inspired by guys like Jay.

Robert Cohen says:

You’re welcome Tom.

Rob: I needed to get away from Buffalo. Perhaps I overdid it. But if you were from there, it might make more sense.

Tom: You were a GREAT photographer, even in college.

Robert Cohen says:

Jay, I second Tom’s statement — you’ve been a great inspiration for your peers and those younger and older than you.

And I hear what you’re saying about your need to escape “Buffalo” and doing the “Bright Lights, Big City” thing.

You were undoubtedly born to live and build a great career in NYC (or Boston or SF).

And man, you’ve done well, not to mention a heck of a lot of good for the world. You’ve certainly taught me a whole lot — and I’m not ever in your freaking classroom.

No one can legitimately gainsay what I’m saying except those who wish to take potshots at you merely for the sake of it.

And of course, as you well know, there’ll always be those people — given who you are, what you do and the fact that you’re a juicy target

What I’m saying Jay, is that “we” love you man, and “we” (I’m speaking for all of “us” now) feel we have the proprietary right to demand your affection and attention, as you have the right to spurn it (or not).

[…] have some questions and possible answers regarding words, journalism and otherwise. We start with the explanation of a non-journalist. Then we have the unsuprising view of Fox News’s words from President Obama. 3 Quarks Daily asks […]

Jay, I sense your insecurity. You’re writing about journalism, and haven’t been a journalist, so you wrote this tale to explain why: “So there you have it: why I am not journalist, even though I wanted to be.”

It doesn’t matter that no one else in the story remembers it the same way, or can back you up. That doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that you aren’t a journalist because you chose not to be one.

You could have gone to the next newspaper down the road, but you didn’t.

That’s your choice, of course, but you’re still stuck with this: You’re an “expert” on a craft that you haven’t practiced.

I actually thought there would be more comments like yours, Abe. Hostile and always, always anonymous.

For what it’s worth: You won’t catch me calling myself an expert in the practice of journalism.

Robert Cohen says:

Why so venomous, Abe?

Fleurdamour says:

He DID practice it, as a young man, and was good enough to be offered a job doing it. The reasons he did not end up working that job didn’t have anything to do with the quality of his work.

@Abe —

…an “expert” on a craft that you haven’t practiced…

A crucial lesson that PressThink has taught over the years is that “journalism” is not a craft that is practiced by expert professionals and then dispensed to its audience…

…instead it is a civic activity whereby unstructured events are organized and understood as “news” through the interaction of amateurs and professionals, consumers and institutions. Journalism cannot function–cannot even exist–without the participation of the public, formerly known as the audience.

In that sense, all of us in the public square practice the “craft” of journalism and, to comprehend its discourse, we all have to be “experts” too: those in newsrooms, those in living rooms–and, yes, even those in classrooms.


The fact that there has always been an audience does not make that audience the ones practicing the journalism.

Try your logic with any other activity, job, craft, profession, or even hobby:

In that sense, all of us in the public square practice the “craft” of carpentry, and, to comprehend its discourse, we all have to be “experts” too: those who do carpentry, and those who own living rooms–and, yes, even those in classrooms.

In that sense, all of us in the public square practice the “craft” of baseball and, to comprehend its discourse, we all have to be “experts” too: those who play baseball, those who sell the hotdogs–and, yes, even those in classrooms.

I understand that much of Jay’s commentary is based on the idea that anyone can do journalism. One could describe his platform as hostility to the work he chose not to do. (But anyone who questions him is, of course, hostile. That’s his way of saying they disagree with him.) That’s all fine. But there’s no need for him to feel defensive about why he didn’t become a journalist, to offer narrative explanations. There are a lot of jobs he didn’t choose to pursue. But none of those others does he choose to teach.

No, wait, by Andrew’s definition, Jay did become a journalist! We’re all journalists, remember. All of us practice the craft, remember.

@Abe —

For a candlestick to be made, all that is required is a block of wood and a carpenter. No public square.

For journalism to be practiced, more is required than for an event to take place and for a reporter to cover it. The reporter’s work only becomes journalism once that report fulfills a useful function in the public square.

It is in that sense that all of us have standing to claim expertise, whether or not we have personally engaged in the “craft” of reporting. We all participate in the work required to turn reporting into journalism.

What a interesting read. Change one thing and the future could have been entirely different for you. Thanks for sharing this story.

Since reading your offering, the one that contains mention of the 1977 antitrust suit brought by the then Buffalo Courier-Express, I think I may have come up with another better explanation as to what happened. The federal trial judge in Buffalo ruled in 1977 in favor of the plaintiff, the Courier. However, the 2nd circuit in New York found for The Buffalo Evening News. The case was still technically under appeal to the US Supreme Court. I was told late in 1982 that the two papers, the Courier then being owned by Cowles Media, settled the case when the Courier closed in September, 1982.

My best guess at this distance is that the lawyers for the Courier told its brass not to have any contact with you after it had sunk in that you had been a witness for the defendant. That if The Courier-Express had employed you it could appear to be an offer of a thing of value for your cooperation or non cooperation. Thanks for bringing me into a very interesting story.

Doug: One problem with that explanation is that the Courier-Express did offer me a thing of value after I gave testimony in the lawsuit, refusing to answer the questions posed by lawyers from the Evening News. The Courier-Express offered me a paid internship as a summer replacement reporter, then repeated the “crime” in December of 1978 when I returned during the winter break. The lawyers were asleep the first time, asleep again when you asked me to quit school and stay on, and still asleep in December of 1978, then in March or April of 1979 they woke up?

A second problem involves this sentence in my account, “A few years later, through a friend who had a friend who worked at the Courier-Express, the mystery was solved.” According to what I was told, the explanation I gave–that I lost my job by applying for my job–was well known in the Courier newsroom. That’s how I put two and two together. I had forgotten about the application I sent to an Editor and Publisher box number, until I was told about this “newsroom legend.” How is it that people in the Courier-Express newsroom knew about these events if my application to the box number had nothing to do with the job that never materialized for me?

Amy Sauertieg says:

I’m not a great believer in “things happen for a reason,” but as one student who was fortunate to have you as a teacher back in those early days, I can honestly say that if these things hadn’t happened to you, I probably wouldn’t have ended up as a teacher myself. Many of us have taken a circuitous path to the careers we now hold, and what seemed like random events then take on a different light when we look back at them. So I for one am glad that you didn’t end up as a journalist, since the events that shaped your life also ended up shaping mine. An ecological perspective? I think so.

Thank you very much, Amy. That is very kind and inspiring in its own way.

If you were escorted from the office by security, do you recall what you did in the embarrassing lacuna while you and Turner sat waiting for the security arrive? Did you sit in silence? Did you shoot the breeze?

I ask because Turner has no recollection of ever calling security – something surely fairly memorable to any editor – and the story as you describe it hardly seems the occasion for calling them. If you cannot recall what you did while you waited for security, perhaps memory has embellished the moment.

Yes, I do. I told him there was no need; that I would leave under my own powers. I probably said something additional, and then went to the elevators and when the elevator doors opened the security guard was there, coming up, so I got in and the guard stepped out and back in when he realized I was the one he was supposed to escort. I rode down in the elevator with him and he watched me walk out the door onto Main Street. No words were spoken.

Well, I believe you (of course) – but it’s humanly interesting that Turner remembers it otherwise, and I cannot myself, as a working editor-in-chief, imagine punishing a prospective employee in the way you describe.

I can imagine joking about the comedy of the thing, for a couple of weeks. But if I liked the writer enough to offer him a job, I would understand his or motivation in applying to other jobs, just to confirm there was nothing better out there.

And I can’t even begin to imagine calling security in these circumstances, unless the young person seemed unduly agitated or potentially violent.

It’s the strangest story. But I very much enjoyed reading it.

He doesn’t remember it otherwise. He says he didn’t remember calling security, but perhaps someone else did. He says, “you’ll have to sue me to find out” sounds like him in those days. He says his memory of his dealings with short term employees like me are a lot hazier than his memory of staffers who worked for a year or more at the Courier. Quite obviously it was a much more important event to me than it was to him, so why wouldn’t my recollection be clearer than his?

I don’t know why you find calling security so unlikely. When people are fired at newspapers and news networks they are routinely told to leave immediately; and in a way I was being fired because no previous communication telling me my job had evaporated had been sent. So this was the meeting at which the Courier informed me that it was severing ties.

I think security was called not because I might get violent or cause a scene, but simply because Turner wanted the meeting to be over: now. If you had offered a young person a job and then just stopped communicating with him, informing him that the only way to get an explanation was to initiate a lawsuit, then you might want the conversation to be over too.

Jay – What really stopped me in my tracks was the way you described your younger self: “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.”

That is my son, still an adolescent, but a knockabout kid who prefers soccer and hockey to school work. He’s got the brains but no oomph. At least not yet. Your essay gives me hope!

Suzanne says:

Isn’t it good to know the answer to the question, which you lived with for decades, having Douglas Turner’s own recalled memory give an account of those confronting times? As an author, with a first novel called “Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich?” I read with interest your post. Yes, you were young and not wise to the ways of this world and what it demands of one. Everything has its ins and outs, dos and don’ts, which either can make or break one’s desire to succeed in their chosen course in life. Still, as you say, you have a great job! It gives some solace and I’m joyful for you. Y’see, life isn’t always fair but God is. Sometimes people scoff at these words of innocence, or vulnerability, but its truth is powerfully known in the life of those who own them. I choose to see your love of journalism, as a scholar and press critic, which is now read by me and countless others. Wonderfully voiced, Jay Rosen!

Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author (early 2011)
http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich?

[…] leader of the “citizen journalist” movement, Jay Rosen finally explains to the world why his career in journalism ended more than thirty years ago. Jay’s spectacular screw-up at the Buffalo Courier-Express has […]