In the Twitter age, budding journalists are advised to start video blogging about social media. But those with a preference for the printed word will find more solace in the ink-soaked advice of Carl Hartman, the longest-serving writer for the Associated Press, an American news agency.
Hartman retired in 2006, at 89, after 62 years with the AP. His career took him to post-war Europe--Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Budapest and Brussels--and then to the Washington bureau, where he occupied a cluttered desk for 30 years. He wrote over 20,000 stories and still pens book reviews for the AP from a basement office in his modest Georgetown row house.
He invited me to the "Bring a Friend" recruitment reception at the National Press Club, a sanctuary for media denizens. We began with a visit to the restaurant and bar, more or less unchanged since Hartman first started going decades ago. (Though its patrons are now more demographically representative; a picture of a naked woman no longer hangs above the bar.) We talked about his career, new media and if he would want to become a journalist nowadays.
More Intelligent Life: Do you remember your first story?
Carl Hartman: In the early thirties my father started a paper, the Washington Sun, which existed for about a month before he gave up on the venture. During that time, George Bernard Shaw made a speech at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and it came through on the radio; so my father, thinking of me a literary type, said I could write it up. I was about 16, an English major, and had delusions that I was able to write. But I knew who George Bernard Shaw was, even read a play or two of his, so it seemed reasonable that I could write something.
MIL: Journalism has changed immensely since then: what about the act of
CH: The job itself has not changed much: you cover a beat, do your best, and hope they print your story without messing it up too much. You usually have to cover a lot of frivolous things, either because a fuss is being made about them or your editor has different ideas of news value than you do; a decent reporter finds something in it that actually matters to people. That's still the same.
MIL: So now you are back to freelancing.
CH: Not really. I tried. And I succeeded in failing very easily. I went to a workshop offered at the Press Club on how to build a freelance career, and was sending out queries and my CV to people. Hardly anyone replied. The fear of failure has prevented me from making any more great efforts in that direction. My technique for sending queries is perhaps defective. I had done a few book reviews on the side for the AP before I retired, and I thought I might as well carry on with that. I feel that I am doing something in a career that is not quite over. If the AP ever abolishes book reviews then I will have to give freelancing another shot.
MIL: What about Twitter, or blogging?
CH: No. I don't have a mobile phone either. In this age of technology I have trouble understanding why the latest gadget is so popular: what does it do that you could not do another way? I see that a recent edition of The Economist has a big technology section in it; I'm sure there are half a dozen pieces that I don't understand.
MIL: So I take it you still prefer print newspapers to the blogosphere?
CH: When I was young, my mother used to give me hell for sneaking out by myself to get the first edition of the New York Times; so I have an old habit of trusting newspapers, which is based on a certain amount of experience with them.
MIL: The newspaper may be extinct pretty soon.
CH: It is hard to imagine. I don't think that situation would last. Somebody with the means will keep them alive.
MIL: Can't bloggers and citizen journalists replace them?
CH: In my honest opinion, that notion is based on basic ignorance on how news is gathered and verified. The so-called mainstream media has its faults, but how, for example, can the information that you get from a blogger be accepted if you don't know his background; you don't know who might be paying him; you don't know what experience he's had or what his personal prejudices may be. When you have a newspaper, you have at least one person besides the writer who looks at the product critically. The information that you get from online is often not the product of an organisation interested in the enterprise of verification.
MIL: But in an era where people are used to free information, fewer are willing to pay for such an enterprise.
CH: Well, maybe there is no need to pay doctors either. You just ask your best friend: what do I do about this pain in my left shin? We sometimes make fun of journalistic professionalism, but when you approach subjects like government and health care and so on, it is worthwhile to have people who devote their lives to it, and you have to have a way of supporting them.
MIL: If you were starting out in the current circumstances, would you still try to be a journalist?
Hard to say. It would be a challenge, but I hope that I would. Getting a satisfactory job has always been difficult.
Picture Credit: Emily Ferry