Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In The Wake Of Halberstam's Death, Journalists Need Mentors

Yesterday's news of the death of 73-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam reminded me of why journalists need mentors.

Within 24 hours, news outlets posted their odes to the journalist, who died in a car crash with a journalism graduate student from Berkeley behind the wheel. The Harvard Crimson, the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and other columnists all gave Halberstam his journalistic due with fine obituaries and columns.

But what about that student? Why was he there?

According to some of the articles, Halberstam was on his way to interview former New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book he was writing about the 1958 NFL championship between Tittle's Giants and the Baltimore Colts. Kevin Jones, a first-year graduate student, was driving.

So far, nothing has been heard from Jones, who survived with minor injuries. But in time, shedding light on the accident might allow Halbertsam another accolade: mentor.

According to reports, Halberstam had just given a speech at UC-Berkeley on "Turning Journalism into History." Jones had what would normally be the amazing experience of accompanying Halberstam on the job.

In a 1993 interview with the Mercury News, Halberstam said that "The public perceives us as being too powerful and too arrogant. We give a jarring perception of reality to people."

Nevertheless, as one of the more decorated journalists in the biz, Halberstam didn't seem too arrogant or powerful enough to take Jones with him to a big interview. That's a hell of a learning experience, I think -- seeing the master at work.

I might be assuming too much, since the story is still developing. For all I know, maybe Halberstam brought Jones along to fetch coffee. I can't say one way or the other -- I wasn't there. Maybe Halberstam's wife can reveal more in due time. But for now, Jones's presence in the car makes me believe that the industrious Halberstam was extending a hand to a new generation of young journalists.

Pulitzer Prize winner? Sure. Author of 15 bestsellers? Great. One of journalism's finest? Absolutely. But bringing along a journalism graduate student to a big interview? That sounds like a mentor to me. And I think it should work its way up toward the lede in many of his obits.

With Halberstam's death, there remains an ever-growing hole in the cultivation of the new generation. Journalists of all ages need mentors. It could be a boss, it could be a peer, it could be someone at the Poynter Institute or someone completely unassociated. But journalists can learn from each other. And I'm willing to bet that Halberstam, decorated as he was, was learning just as much from Jones as he was him -- the "reverse mentoring" that Jeffrey Dvorkin spoke about earlier this year.

Newsrooms have talked about it. Magazine offices have mentioned it. Ed2010 has the next generation buzzing about it.

So tell me, readers -- do you have a mentor? How has that affected your path?


SF Money Musings said...

I was wondering the same thing when I read the obits on Halberstam - what about the student? was he assisting with the interview?

I even checked the Daily Californian site (www.dailycal.org) and couldn't find any information on the graduate student.

I've been very lucky to have a great mentor who stuck by me through the best and worst times. We met at a job fair when I was just a freshman in college. I didn't have a clue what I was doing there but she extended a hand and guided me through the next 4-5 years while I searched for internships, debated graduate school for journalism (heeded her advice and didn't go), navigated newsroom politics during my first newspaper job.

And even when I lasted only a few months at my first newspaper job because of my writing skills, she believed in me and encouraged me to keep trying. She suggested ways to improve my writing and tackle my weaknesses.

She made a huge impact on me and continues to inspire me to write better even though I'm only freelancing instead of working full-time at a newspaper.

I came across your blog through Ramit's "I Will Teach You to be Rich" site. Great blog. I really enjoy reading your thoughts being a news junkie myself. Romenesko's blog is the other one I read first thing in the morning.

The Editorialiste said...

@SF Money Musings: Forgive me for not responding right away. I've been quite the busy Editorialiste!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt like a side of the story was missing. And you know what? It's May 3, and still no news on that thing. Maybe Editor & Publisher will cover it in a few months or something. Or maybe it will remain speculation.

It's so great that you had a solid mentor. I think a mentor helps you learn about yourself and really makes you think on your own about your own strengths and weaknesses -- and how that might affect your career trajectory. That kind of fraternity is also helpful to fall back on when things go wrong -- I know a well-known Daily News photographer who often cites the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (http://www.dartcenter.org/) as a great place to lean on someone else when you just need to talk.

It's a win-win situation either way.

(Also, I'm glad you came from Ramit's blog -- I, too, enjoy his posts. After all, journalism isn't the most lucrative profession in the world and it's great to have guidance on the financial front as well. Plus, I've always felt a little kinship with SF people, us being both inhabitants of ultra-dense coastal urban centers.)

Thanks so much for reading,
The Editorialiste.

Anonymous said...

Why was Halberstam killed?


This was clearly not a routine, fender-bender.