The Writing Life: Journalism Lessons From Long Ago

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Back in 2004, when I was writing a regular column for The Straits Times based in Singapore, I penned the following essay. Some of it may seem to be outdated, particularly with the overwhelming presence of Internet and smart-phone journalism, but I think what I said 13 years ago is still largely valid:

In all probability, this is it for me, the last innings in a newspaper career that has stretched four decades over two centuries in several continents. Daily journalism is changing so speedily that it's become hard to tell fact from fiction, education from entertainment, and information from ideology. Reckless opinion masquerades as analysis, and character assassination as legitimate portraiture.

This column isn't meant to be a valedictory but a reflection of how one extremely fortunate international journalist views the transformation of an honorable calling into one controlled by impresarios, bureaucrats, bean counters and public-relations maestros.

At 56 (now 68) years of age, I'm scarcely about to apply for admission to a nursing home or the geriatric ward of some institution for the mentally indisposed. I like to think that I have many years of serious work ahead of me. I am single, in reasonably good health, and sound enough in mind to distinguish a verb from an adverb. I have accumulated a network of sources around the world so that, at virtually any moment, I can tap into their expertise for perspectives on most of the pressing issues of our time. The fact that they are still willing to take my calls after my long years of pursuit suggests that journalists aren't always held in poor esteem as some recent polls indicate.

I like to think that I still retain my romance for journalism - the old-fashioned kind in which you pounded the pavement, sought out elusive sources, sweet-talked them into telling you things that they would otherwise have kept to themselves. I still like to think that I am, as the late novelist Irwin Shaw famously said, a storyteller in the bazaar, telling the world about itself, sharing my experiences with unknown readers out there. I like to think that there are still readers who want journalists to probe behind and beneath the news, enhancing their understanding of what it is that works and doesn't work in this world of increasingly globalization.

I like to think, in other words, that there are readers out there who want those of us in the print medium to circumvent the sensational and serve up a generous portion of analysis, features and reflections. There's a delicious thrill in knowing that every morning, somewhere in the world, people are picking up your newspaper and getting their assessment of the news through you, the person with the byline.

I know that focus groups in many countries are telling editors that they don't much care for the news, and certainly not for longish dispatches.

But I haven't heard of any focus groups saying that they'd ignore rich, compelling written stories about the daily dramas of our collective lives. Daily journalism is about own lives, the way we live them, the way we express our values, the way we rear our children, the way we shape our society, the way we build our future. Maybe we just aren't delivering such stories in enough volume and velocity any longer.

It wasn't always this way. I was raised at the New York Times, at the knees of the greatest editor I have ever known, A. M. Rosenthal. His friends and detractors variously described him as a tyrant and demanding taskmaster in the newsroom. For me, however, he was a teacher. And the most enduring lesson that Rosenthal - who died in 2006 - taught me was that in the pursuit of truth and fairness, no price is too high to pay. Make that extra call, take that extra trip, visit that additional source - then do it all over again until you are truly convinced that your story is as accurate, as fair and as thorough as humanly possible.

My other great teacher was James W. Michaels, the man who created the modern-day Forbes Magazine. His lesson? You've got to be a bulldog in the journalism business; you mustn't let go of a story once you've sunk your teeth into it. Don't allow yourself to be bullied. And don't allow yourself to be bought. (Michaels died in 2007.)

These are all simple lessons, but deep ones nevertheless. I was lucky to have wonderful mentors like Rosenthal and Michaels who shaped my career and sensibilities. I'm not so sure that today's young journalists enjoy such fortune, or whether they are even willing to work under the mentorship of experienced newspaper people. In many young journalists whom I meet these days, there's a certainty about themselves and their work that springs, I fear, not from genuine self-confidence but from a false swagger about being in a business that fetches invitations to glamorous events.

My dismay about the state of contemporary journalism is deepened by the awareness that today's world is far more exciting than the one in which I grew up. Globalization - the freer flow of trade, capital and manpower across borders - is bringing cultures closer. The Statist bureaucratism of the 1950s and 1960s, so fashionable in the Third World, is steadily yielding to the proven tenets of free enterprise. More societies are becoming democracies.

And yet there's also growing global poverty, the AIDS pandemic, genocide in parts of the world, corporate malfeasance, kleptocracy in poor states, and poor governance in many more. Not everyone has benefited from the spread of capitalism.

But there are also agents of change - both individual and institutional - who are tirelessly working to change the human condition for the better. Yes, they need more funds. But they need the coverage that journalism can offer so that the news of their valiant efforts travels more widely. There are stories to be told about them - not just feel-good stories, but tales of working against human and natural odds.

Will there be a new generation of journalists willing to undertake these challenging assignments? Will more editors give them the opportunities to go out there and explore the world, other than just in war-torn areas? Will publishers open up their wallets to permit the journalism of enterprise? And will such journalism compete successfully with infotainment for the precious time of readers?

Hard questions to answer. My own inclination is one of pessimism. Daily journalism may well be a "has-been" business. But I'm so very grateful to have been a part of it for all my working life. I simply cannot imagine what life would have been without that midnight dash to the airport to board yet another flight, that bumpy bus ride into the bush, that simple meal shared with a peasant family, and, yes, that occasional banquet with royalty.

I know that I can share my experiences with the young ones in journalism today. But I also wish that I could somehow make them live out those experiences. That, however, is beyond me - but not beyond them.