Letters to a Young Journalist


By Samuel G. Freedman

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Over the course of a thirty-year career, Samuel Freedman has excelled both at doing journalism and teaching it, and he passionately engages both of these endeavors in the pages of this book. As an author and journalist, Freedman has produced award-winning books, investigative series, opinion columns, and feature stories and has become a specialist in a wide variety of fields. As a teacher, he has shared his expertise and experience with hundreds of students, who have gone on to succeed in both print and broadcast media. In Letters to a Young Journalist, Freedman conducts an extended conversation with young journalists-from kids on the high school paper to graduates starting their first jobs. Whether he’s talking about radio documentaries or TV news shows, Internet blogs, or backwater beats, shoeleather research or elegant prose, his goal is to explore the habits of mind that make an excellent journalist. It is no secret that journalism’s mission is seriously imperiled these days, and Freedman’s provocative ideas and fascinating stories offer students and journalists at all levels of experience wise guidance and professional inspiration.


Praise for Samuel J. Freedman's
Letters to a Young Journalist:
"Maybe you think, because of the title, that Letters to a Young Journalist isn't for you. You're not a journalist. Maybe you're not even young. No matter. . . . You should read this book. You should especially read it if you're one of those people who polls tell us are skeptical of the news media's ability to get the facts straight and present them in a politically unbiased manner. At best, Letters to a Young Journalist may convince you that the media are doing a better job than you've thought they are."
Chicago Sun-Times
"At once idealistic and practical, sobering and inspirational, Letters to a Young Journalist blends Freedman's personal war stories with newspaper wisdom of the ages.... The book is written for the jaded professional and the aspiring writer at a high school or college paper who's thinking of a career as a reporter. As a doer and a teacher, Freedman is a superb, though stern, mentor. . . . With the field spinning through a bad news cycle, and the future so uncertain, Freedman's commitment to principled reporting is more vital than ever."
The Times Union (Albany, NY)
"[An] important book.... [Freedman] has the courage to say things most of us in the newsroom know but rarely admit.... Freedman's courage to speak about journalism in his unflinching moral tone gives this book its power. It's a tonic for a business that's turning news into a commodity and exalts blogging and other first-person prattling as a solution to what ails journalism."
Nieman Reports
"Reading Freedman's book helped restore my faith in my chosen profession. At our best, journalists help people make sense of the world.... What we need are more people who think like journalists. We need more people who ask the extra question, people who reject easy answers, people who care about their neighbors and their communities. That doesn't fit characters like Molly Ivins and Ann Coulter and their ilk. They're big-name pundits who are great at thinking up witty one-liners and attacking the other side.... I wish they'd read Freedman's book.... I felt refreshed by Freedman's words."
Springfield News-Leader (Missouri)
"Freedman's fine new book, Letters to a Young Journalist, is a useful antidote to the corrosive expectations of fame and fortune that have come to afflict the Fourth Estate. If enough aspiring reporters read it, and take it to heart, it may begin to improve public attitudes about journalism as well.... His description of the journalist's writing process—'conceptualization, reporting, outlining, re-reporting, drafting, and revision'—is so sensible and succinct that I'm going to stick it on my wall for my next writing project.... 'You must shape reality without misshaping it,' Freedman writes. That's as good a description of journalism as I have seen."
Columbia Magazine
"A frank, heartfelt look at the practice of American journalism . . . Drawing on conversations with students, other reporters, and editors, Freedman speaks very directly and personally, offering encouragement with equal portions of reality about the state of modern journalism from corporate influences to the blurring of lines between truth and propaganda. Noting that the current lack of popularity of journalism will drive out the uncommitted, Freedman devotes his message to those who continue to believe in the value and necessity of a free press."
"Young or old, reporters, editors—indeed anyone who practices journalism or consumes it, can profit from the lessons, wisdom, war stories, battle plans, celebrations of best practices and the stinging lessons of failure contained in . . . Letters to a Young Journalist. . . . Freedman's's focus is razor-sharp.... Letters to a Young Journalist doesn't shy away from the hard truths of the newsroom . . . But those painful realities are tempered by the often joyous struggles of the profession: dogged reporting, graceful writing, all within a moral framework of a profession that continues to draw our best and brightest . . . who are determined to beat journalism's reaper as well as deadline's ticking clock. "
"Letters is not simply [Freedman's] reminiscences, nor is it a screed about the decline of journalism.... The book is fundamentally a manual that addresses how to be a journalist and how to succeed in the business.... [Freedman] offers valuable advice based on his experiences and the collective wisdom of his colleagues, including the need to adhere to such standards as trust, accuracy, and relevancy. Aspiring journalists can profit from this concise and purposeful guide."
School Library Journal
"Journalism is a calling, and Sam Freedman—through his experience and his example—is a testament to this. Letters to a Young Journalist is moving and edifying and packed with keen, generous information—we've needed this book for years."
—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family
"Samuel Freedman's Letters to a Young Journalist is so wise and honest in its clear-eyed description of the good, the bad, and ugly of modern journalism that it will scare away the faint of heart and inspire those who are born to understand the place and purpose and nobility of fine journalism in American society."
—Walt Harrington, author of Intimate Journalism and Head, Department of Journalism, University of Illinois

Also by Samuel G. Freedman
Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher,
Her Students, and Their High School
Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church
The Inheritance: How Three Families and America
Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond
Jew Versus Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry
Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life

To my mentors,
Robert W. Stevens, Jim Podgers, Cissi Falligant,
Jeff Schmalz, Arthur Gelb, Abe Rosenthal, Alice Mayhew

The summer after I graduated college, I got an internship on the Minneapolis Star. I was the newest of newcomers, so new that my car was towed from the employee parking lot on my first day. I was too ashamed to complain, so I walked something like four miles to the impoundment lot, soaking through my one good suit.
Forgive the digression, because that's not even the main point I want to share with you now. As I was saying before interrupting myself, as an intern I was at the bottom of the seniority ladder, and I received the schedule and assignments to match. I had to work on Saturday mornings starting at seven, which definitely put a crimp in Friday nights. My first duty on those morning shifts was to call every outpost of the state police throughout Minnesota and ask for accident reports. Even when I was already holding a wire service bulletin about some fatal crash, the troopers would laconically say, "Nothing here." I swear, those guys wouldn't have admitted to a nuclear strike.
On my weekdays in the office, I did a rotation on what was known as "lobby duty." In those days, any ix passerby could just stroll into the reception area of the Star's newsroom and ask to speak to a reporter or editor. Even more amazingly, someone like me was then dispatched to hear them out. A few folks showed up reeking of malt liquor and smoke, and some claimed the CIA was communicating with them through their tooth fillings. But for the most part, they were regular people who felt so connected to the daily newspaper that they considered it approachable, ready to hear what they had to say.
I've thought of lobby duty occasionally during the six years since Letters to a Young Journalist was first published. These days, the equivalent is opening my e-mail. I've gotten notes from readers as far afield as Scotland, India, and Iraq. The book has been translated into Chinese and Korean. Students who've read it in college and high school classes in the United States have sent thanks. And not one of these people has asked me to claim a million-dollar prize or send money because they got mugged in Heathrow, so I guess they're sincere.
Seriously, nothing means more to me, and probably to most journalists, than to know our words mattered to someone, that they didn't just end up as fish wrap, shredder fodder, or deleted files. So here is the paperback (and electronic) edition of Letters, augmented by a new afterword that takes stock of what has changed in our shared and cherished profession since I last wrote to you. I hope it will help you. I hope it will move you. And if the CIA gets in contact through your tooth fillings, feel free to meet me in the lobby to let me know.
New York, N.Y.
June 2011

Thirty years ago, when I was a good deal like you, I drove off to start my first job as a newspaper reporter. By that evening in May 1975, I had already been writing for student newspapers for nearly half my life, starting in junior high school. This summer internship on the Courier-News, a 45,000-circulation daily in suburban New Jersey, marked the first time I would actually be paid a salary for doing the thing I loved. In all the years since, I have tried never to forget the exhilaration I felt on that first night.
I was a few months short of nineteen then, and I didn't even own a white shirt or navy blazer for the occasion. If memory serves, I borrowed a leisure suit, of all things, from my father, and because he was three inches shorter than me, it couldn't have fit very well. My hair spilled down to my shoulders in coarse heaps, and I had the scraggly whiskers of a first beard, which I'd begun a few months earlier on a backpacking trip in Oregon. I must have looked like a complete buffoon.
Still, I had what was most essential to my calling, a ballpoint pen and a stenographer's notebook, and that equipment mattered more than my incompetent attire. I reached the Courier-News parking lot just before my shift, six thirty at night until two thirty in the morning. There was no pretense of training or orientation. I'd been hired because my clips from the college paper had convinced the editors I was capable, so I was dropped instantly into the pool of reporters covering local government. Whenever someone went on vacation, I filled in on the vacant beat. I can still remember that first night being sent to cover the township council in a place called Branchburg. I made my deadline and even slipped in the verb "assuage" in my lead paragraph, earning a sort of admiring snort from the night editor.
After I filed the story, I had my first real chance to survey the scene around me. The Courier-News occupied a low-slung modern building of white bricks and smoked windows, one that could have been easily mistaken for the insurance offices or furniture stores nearby on Route 22. Inside the newsroom, fluorescent lights cast a permanent daytime over banks of fake-wood desks and manual typewriters. The editors sat in a row at the front of the room with pots of rubber cement to glue together the pages of copy into a single, extended sheet for the back-shop. They also had a spike for the stories that were killed. Along the wall behind the editors clattered the wire-service machines. On the far side of two swinging doors lay the composing room and presses, which were manned by burly, ink-smeared printers who thought reporters were a bunch of wimps. Down a narrow hallway was our "cafeteria," which consisted of six or seven vending machines. One of them had microwavable pancakes.
Even on my first night, I knew enough about journalism to know this wasn't the mythological world of The Front Page. We weren't in a city. Nobody was wearing a fedora or sneaking booze from a desk drawer or shouting things like, "Gimme rewrite, babe." The Courier-News once had been such a place, a fixture in the downtown of Plainfield, New Jersey, a small city that made its modest way on paychecks from a Mack Truck factory. When the black section of town had burst into rioting in 1967, with a mob stomping to death a white cop, the Courier-News began plotting its departure for the suburbs.
The reporters whom I got to know over the coming weeks seemed drawn in equal parts from the past and the future. There was an old-timer named Forrest who liked to avoid being assigned obituaries by hiding under his desk. One of his contemporaries, Maggie, sometimes fell asleep at her desk, letting her wig slide off. Phil, one of the editors, chewed cigars. I couldn't dismiss the whole generation, though, because it also included Jack Gill, the streetwise skeptic who covered Plainfield, and Hollis Burke, an idealist who had done a midlife turn in the Peace Corps. They had about them not only experience but wisdom.
Naturally enough, I gravitated to the younger faction, the reporters and editors in their twenties, college-educated and ambitious. Ann Devroy, the city editor, would be smoking and eating patty-melt sandwiches as she pored over copy through her tinted aviator glasses. Sam Meddis, one of the investigative reporters, had talked his way into the paper with a bunch of poems he'd written as a Rutgers undergrad. Ultimately, Ann would become the White House correspondent for the Washington Post, Sam a feature writer for USA Today; others from that newsroom landed on the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, and The New York Times. That summer, though, such destinations felt impossibly distant.
It was sufficient, at least for me, to be making the lordly sum of $130 a week. I sat through a score of municipal meetings—borough council, board of education, zoning commission—and I called a half-dozen police departments for our daily roundup of local crime. Because I befriended the paper's drama critic, he let me review a few summer-stock productions. I reveled in being part of that community of reporters, sharing ziti dinners before we scattered to our various assignments, grabbing last call at the Ambers before we drove home. Those muggy Jersey nights never seemed more seductive.
Toward the end of the summer, I was subbing for the beat reporter in South Bound Brook, a blue-collar town that was uneventful even by our sleepy standards. Somebody called me with a tip, the only bona fide tip of my entire summer, that there was a suspicious pile of debris on a canal towpath that fell within the town boundary. I drove out there, probably in my leisure suit, and indeed found a pile of dirt about fifteen feet high. On closer inspection, I noticed the dirt was covering spongy, whitish material. That set off alarms for me. The asbestos manufacturer Johns Manville had its main factory a few miles away, and hundreds of its current or former employees had developed an otherwise rare cancer as a result of inhaling the dust. I wrote an initial story about my curious discovery on the towpath, which in turn brought out a scientist from the state environmental protection agency to test the pile's content. It was, sure enough, asbestos. That became my second scoop. The owner of the towpath property responded by hiring a college kid to guard the pile—by sitting on top of it in a chaise lounge. And that development, accompanied by a front-page photo, was scoop number three. Some nights, when I walked past Forrest in the newsroom, he would mutter at me, "Asbestos. You're the one. Yes, you are. With that asbestos." I was never sure whether he meant the nattering as a compliment or a condemnation. By the end of August, I'd learned it was safest to engage Forrest on the subject of Bob Marley, an improbable passion of his.
I cannot honestly say that I made up my mind to be a journalist when I wrote those asbestos articles, because I'd probably made it up as early as eighth grade, when I volunteered to be editor-in-chief of the school paper. But there was something so confirming in the experience. It made me feel that, trite as it sounds, my work could matter. It made me feel that I did belong with people like Jack Gill and Hollis Burke and Ann Devroy and Sam Meddis, that I wasn't just a pretender, a wannabe, a hanger-on.
My last shift of the summer ended much as my first one had, with filing some municipal-government story and then waiting to be released. Charlie Nutt, the night editor, was probably only seven or eight years older than me, but he had the practiced scowl of a septuagenarian. No reporter could leave the newsroom before two thirty unless Charlie gave a "good night," and it seemed to anguish him to do so, as if shaving a few minutes off our shift might lead to the sin of sloth, as if it might endanger our eternal souls. Whenever he said, "Good night," I noticed, he said it in a stern monotone and he said it without lifting his eyes from whatever story he was editing. We would scuttle out like cockroaches. When I got my last good night of the summer, though, I was sorry to hear it, sorry to have something magical end.
I tell you this story because it never hurts to start at the beginning, and I tell you it because you've asked me for advice, and you ought to know something about who is giving it. I cannot transfix you with war stories about dodging bullets and defying generals, because I have never covered a war. I cannot dazzle you with inside dope about the White House, because I have never been inside it except as a tourist. I have written investigative series on poverty, political corruption, and Medicaid fraud, but I cannot present myself as a career muckraker like Wayne Barrett or Lowell Bergman. Whether at article or book length, I have spent much of my career exploring subjects that are not considered the sexiest or the most prestigious—culture, religion, education, immigration. If you give me a choice, I will always prefer to write about someone obscure than someone famous. And, as much as I savor the company of fellow journalists at a party or in a newsroom, I feel like I've done something wrong if I bump into any of them reporting the same story as I am.
In my idiosyncratic way, though, I have had the kind of career that you may have, or at least the kind that is common in our profession. I've moved from a small paper (Courier-News) to a medium-sized one (Suburban Trib) to a major one (The New York Times), and I've gone on to write six books, counting this one. Over the past fifteen years, I have taught journalism at Columbia University as well, and my students have gone on to write books of their own and to report or produce for such news organizations as National Public Radio, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, Rolling Stone, and BusinessWeek.
By teaching, in addition to doing, I've been compelled to think about what it takes to be a journalist and what it means to be a journalist. In my classes, and now in these letters to you, I've had to put the precepts into words. When I first took an adjunct-instructor position at Columbia, I did it as an agnostic on the whole notion of whether journalism even can be taught. My undergraduate journalism courses at the University of Wisconsin had been, with one or two exceptions, an utter waste. The college paper, the Daily Cardinal, was my classroom, and experience was my teacher. The mentors I met along the way were editors and veteran reporters, not members of any faculty. Still, I told my first Columbia class that it had the power to change my mind, and it did. I came to understand the intense education that can happen in the "conversation" between a student's article and my editing. I was affirmed in my belief that intellectual curiosity and a relentless work ethic matter infinitely more than natural ability in achieving excellence.
I have also seen, over the years, some of what makes journalistic education fail, and that is when it settles for being a bunch of hero-worshipping students fawning over a star writer's war stories. I remember the weakest student in my first Columbia class asking if he could skip a session so that he could hear a speech by David Halberstam. "If you go to hear Halberstam," I told him, "you'll never be Halberstam." The real David Halberstam took his first reporting job on a paper in West Point, Mississippi, with a circulation of four thousand. Now in his seventies, he still prides himself on conducting two full-length interviews a day, every day, when he is doing research for a book. As for my long-ago student, who blew off class for the speech, I can't say that I've ever seen his byline.
In a book like this one, of course, I cannot be your line-editor, though I hope that some of what I write may help teach you how better to edit yourself. There are other things, too, this book does not mean to be. It is not meant to be a textbook, or a history, or a work of media criticism, though elements of all those forms may appear from time to time. Nothing in a book, mine or anyone else's, can provide the specific, situational guidance a young journalist receives from a gifted editor. I was fortunate enough to cross the path of several, and I wish you the same luck and opportunity.
What, then, can I do for you? I hope I can teach you the way a journalist encounters the world—as reporter, as writer, as citizen. I hope I can instill you with certain habits of mind and inspire you to develop both a work ethic and a moral ethos. I have spent virtually my entire career in print journalism, but the things I can tell you about craft, integrity, intellectual curiosity, and concern with the human condition are every bit as applicable to someone working in radio, television, or online. And if I speak to you about painting or music or drama, and I'm certain that I will, then I want to introduce you to art that will elevate your cultural literacy and, if I may be so bold, enhance your life. The greatest journalists never settled for only reading or watching or listening to journalism ; they looked for their models and catalysts in literature, film, jazz, every great art.
I envision you as the high-school and college journalists I once was, as the graduate students I now teach, as the young reporters I worked alongside on my first jobs. I remember the yearning, the ambition, the impatience, the hunger to improve. I am interested in excellence and I am only interested in teaching those who aspire to excellence. As I sometimes tell my students in moments of exasperation, "I take your work seriously. The question is whether you take your work seriously." I promise to pay you the compliment of high standards. I see myself as your elder, not your superior. My credibility comes less from my successes than from my failures. I have erred in every way I will warn you about. As a minister of my acquaintance once told his congregation, "Church isn't a museum of saints. It's a hospital for sinners."
So I welcome your company. I am flattered by your attention. In the end, I want you to believe, as I believe, that you have chosen a profession of consequence and value, a profession that requires no apology, a profession that can make you happy.

Radical Tradition


On Sale
Nov 8, 2011
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Samuel G. Freedman

About the Author

Samuel G. Freedman is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of six books of nonfiction. He has worked as a reporter for the New York Times and contributor to Rolling Stone and Salon, among other publications, and has won numerous awards, including a Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award, a National Jewish Book Award, and the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author