One of the best columnists I ever had the pleasure of working with, George Hesselberg, recently posted this item on social media about Chicago-area columnist Robert Feder’s retirement. Feder’s bio is extensive, but simply put, he covered radio and entertainment issues in the Windy City for more than 40 years, during a time of much upheaval in the area and in the profession.
Feder’s reflections on his work, approach, life and more have a ton of value for you as a beginning journalist, even if you never read one of his columns or don’t aspire to be a columnist. In his discussion, two key things hit me as being vital to being good at the job:
FOCUS ON THE NEEDS OF THE READERS: Feder talked at length about his duty to the beat, how he felt obligated to do the best job possible and how he wanted to earn the trust of the readers every time he wrote something. The one part that really drove that home was this chunk:
Readers and subscribers reached out constantly with questions, and they expected answers: “Why did WFMT go off the air for 10 minutes last night?” “When is that weekend weather person going to be back?” “Why did that radio station play the same song twice last night?” Believe me, I don’t carry all that information around in my head — and the answer was probably never going to be a news item for me — but trying to be helpful to individual readers was a big part of the responsibility that I felt.
Feder wanted to make sure he could answer those questions for the readers in a clear and immediate fashion. Despite having been the gray eminence of media columnists, he didn’t see these questions as beneath his attention. It’s not, “Look, dweeb, I’m trying to do a multi-source story here on the Federal regulations halting a multi-million dollar media merger. Who gives a crap that WBZR played “Hooked on A Feeling” by Blue Swede twice in a row?” He seemed to approach it more like, “Someone has a question in my area of expertise. I owe it to that person to answer it.”
This also attaches itself to another key point about audience-centricity: If the audience you serve is interested in something, it’s not a “nothing” story. I remember a lot of expose-style stories my students wrote at my various media adviser stops throughout my career, but the one story that really sticks out to me still was the time the student newspaper at Ball State wrote about something simple: Water cups.
Since the start of the newsroom’s collective memory, the food court below the office would allow anyone to come in and grab a plastic cup of ice water for free. Then, one day, when we dispatched a kid to get a tray’s worth of water for the room, the kid came back and said, “They charged me a dime a cup!” When a staffer called the food service people, the answer was, “Well, it’s always been that way,” which it hadn’t, and then another person up the food chain said, “Well, it’s just what we need to do,” without explaining how, when or why this decision was made.
A story in the paper got a lot of students to rail against this in person and online. Less than a week after we ran the story, water was once again free.
Did the story solve the conflict in the Middle East? No.
Did it cure cancer? No.
Did it matter to the readers? Yes, and that’s the goal of all good journalism.
Whether it’s quick blurb on how a squirrel’s decision to snack on a high-voltage line knocked a station off the air last night or when the weatherperson on channel 3 will return, if people want to know something, give it to them.
DECIDE WHO YOU WANT TO BE: Feder had a number of potential role models when he started, but it ended up kind of coming down to two columnists he discusses below:
Deeb was famous for his take-no-prisoners style. And it was enormously entertaining to read if he wasn’t writing about you. But every time you burn a bridge, you lose the opportunity for that person or that organization to trust you.
So you have to decide: Is it better to write something that makes you the center of attention? Or is it better to focus on the story? I never wanted to make it about me. I just wanted to get the goods and have the people trust me.
In that way, Kupcinet was much more my role model. It was never as important where Kup got his information as was the fact that it was coming from him. When Kup said something was happening, you believed it because you knew that he knew everybody. And I think taking that approach had a lot to do with the longevity of my career.
I would likely argue that in the end, he probably became his own version of Kup, blending those ideas of being an authority without being a jackass with his own personality and sense of how best to meet the needs of the audience. Many parts of a journalism career are formed over time, through experiences and based on reactions we receive from peers, colleagues and audience members. It’s less about being poured into a mold and coming out fully formed and more like being a statue chiseled out of marble.
In any case, it’s important to figure out how you want to approach your career and how you want to operate in it. A lot of people I know tell me that they find someone who was influential in a positive way and emulate that person. I tried to do that with Steve Lorenzo, my first journalism teacher, only to have him tell me not to do that. After that moment, I started working on the opposite side of the situation: I found experiences that were unnecessarily painful, editors who were completely terrible and other similar bad outcomes guided me to what I DIDN’T want to replicate. In many cases I’d think, “What would (NAME OF TERRIBLE EDITOR) do here?” and then I’d do the exact opposite.
In any case, the trick here is to make sure that you are being true to who you are and not trying to play a character to fit the parameters established by another individual. Be you and do it to the best of your ability. That’s what Feder did and it led to a hell of a career.