His name was Jack Briggs, and he was the journalist that every young reporter looked up to at the Tri-City Herald, a small daily newspaper in Eastern Washington where I’d finally landed a job.
I joined a young staff. Most of us were just a few years out of college, and none of us planned on staying at the Herald too long, although the people were great. We were restless souls, who figured we’d make our mark in what we liked to call the big leagues. Jack, though, was a lifer. He’d been at the paper for years and wasn’t planning on going anyplace.
He was an editor, but sat right out in the newsroom and wrote five columns a week. And not just fluff. Jack was a bit of a feature writer and an investigative reporter whose name made city managers and police chiefs tremble.
What became clear to us rookies was that Jack cared about journalism and the role of the paper in his city. Sure The New York Times and The Washington Post were important publications and had more prestige. But, in the context of the Tri-Cities, the Herald filled an important role in the community.
Jack took pride in his work. It mattered. He never looked down on us, never poked fun at our attempts at investigative journalism or overwrought prose. He encouraged us. If we wanted to talk, he’d listen. For those who asked, he offered suggestions on how to approach stories or sources. He was a pro, a steady journeyman, who showed us day in and day out what it meant to be a professional journalist.
If you’re working on a small paper, look around your newsroom and find your own Jack Briggs. Most newsrooms have someone like Jack. But too often, young reporters don’t make use of this valuable resource. The reporter is too shy, or lazy or just plain full of himself. And, if for some reason, you can’t find a Jack Briggs at your paper, just widen your search.
That’s what Hilary Maynard, a 23-year-old reporter at the Port Orchard Independent in Washington state, did.
“This is a small paper,” she said. “Our editor is a much better page designer than an editor, and he admits that, in terms of pure editing. I’m a strong writer, but not such a strong reporter. Little of my copy is changed. The upside is that I can try lots of different writing styles, narrative, inverted pyramid and get creative with my ledes. But the downside is that I’d like a little more criticism to grow.”
She found her Jack Briggs, or in her case, two of them. Hilary majored in journalism at the University of Washington, and one of her teachers was Duff Wilson, one of the best investigative journalists in the country, and a reporter at the Seattle Times.
“He encouraged his students to keep in touch,” Hilary said. “So I did. He’s moved to The New York Times, but I still e-mail him and ask how to get information, or what he thinks about my stories. He always mails back.”
Hilary also joined her local SPJ chapter and became involved.
“I’ve met all kinds of colleagues,” she said. “I learned that most older reporters are helpful and more than willing to share. I found a great mentor. She’s the classical music critic at the Seattle Times. She has a doctorate in literature. When I’m unsure about my writing, she can look at my clips and give me tips. She’s inspirational. Her career lets me know that I can make this work.”
Those nagging fears – “Do I have what it takes” – weigh on a young reporter’s mind. Ken Hedler, a reporter at a small paper in rural Arizona, has been in the business for decades and has held reporting posts at 10 small papers. He remembers what it’s like to be young and unsure and has taken it upon himself to be a mentor.
“There’s one reporter who has a lack of experience but is a go-getter,” Hedler said. “I congratulate him by e-mail when he does something good. I suggest story ideas to him or people he can talk to during reporting.”
But Hedler said not enough young reporters seek out veterans for advice.
“I’ve been at papers where the attitude seems to be ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ ” he said.
During his career, Hedler has noticed that young reporters crave feedback, something not enough editors provide.
“I remember a young woman who wrote a series that got a lot of reaction from the public,” he said. “But in the newsroom, no one told her if it was good or bad. No one told her if there were holes in the story, or how she could have improved her reporting. She ended up going into public relations. Without feedback, reporters end their careers too quickly.”
Hedler tells young reporters to listen and to become well read. He said some reporters read nothing but the paper they work for. He wants them to grow with each story by thinking about what they wrote and why. He doesn’t want them to fall into the easy trap of covering what was said at city council meetings and thinking the story is complete. Like all good teachers, Hedler leads by example.
“I’m here to do a better job each day,” he said. “I joined SPJ, something not enough young reporters do. I asked one reporter if he wanted to go to a conference, and the first thing he wanted to know was if the company would pay for him to go. I told him I take my own time off. He wouldn’t. In this business, you have to motivate yourself.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer-Prize winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.