WASHINGTON -- "Reporting, reporting, reporting."
If there was but one lesson to take from The American Spectator's first ever Young Writers' Workshop last week, it is the importance of news reporting, its primacy in finding success as a journalist.
"Everyone wants to have an opinion. Fewer people want to do the work of digging deeper than other people will and finding information that no one else can. But if you do that, you will have success as a writer," said Robert Novak.
And who better to learn those lessons from than a panel of journalists with nearly 200 man years of journalism experience between them? Moderated by M. Stanton Evans, and featuring Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report, John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, and Paul Mirengoff of the Powerline blog, the workshop's panel comprised some of the most experienced and successful journalists in America. "Journalists starting out today have so many more opportunities and resources than we had," said John Fund. In this era of what Fund termed the "citizen-journalist," anyone with a laptop can report or opine on the news. But for those of us seeking to make a living in journalism, the panel suggests we focus on reporting.
"I never sought to become a pundit," said Novak, former co-host of CNN's Crossfire and the evening's keynote speaker. "I always saw myself as a fact-finder, and reporting is what I do to this very day."
When asked about the emerging field of opinion journalism, particularly popular among younger writers who see themselves as the Charles Krauthammers of tomorrow, Robert Novak all but denied its existence. The very idea is contradictory: Opinion requires introspection. Journalism requires sources. "When you're injecting your opinion, does that mean you will suppress information that contradicts it? Does that mean you won't ask the tough questions? Does that mean you won't press your friends the way you would anyone else? Does that mean you won't go where the facts take you?"
This means that reporting, discovering what others can't or won't, is the clearest way for the young writer to set himself apart from the pack. "While young journalists are great at taking advantage of all this 21st century technology, they've forgotten the technology we've had since the 19th century -- the telephone," said Michael Barone.
With the explosion of information technology, the online availability of documents once only accessible by wading through musty archives, young journalists sometimes get the impression that their work starts and ends with Internet research.
But information technology is a double-edged sword, and can hurt as much as help, if not used properly. To drive home his point, Evans recalled the story of a young sportswriter under his aegis who wrote of the age of New York Yankee dominance. An age that, in his estimation, began in... 1996.
Never mind Ruth. Gehrig. DiMaggio. Mantle. Jackson. To hear this young writer tell the tale, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams started the tradition of Yankee excellence. That, explained Evans, is the danger of replacing old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting with Google searches.
As with anything in life, the key is striking a balance. The Internet can be useful in pointing one in the right direction. With online finding aids, writers can spend less time in the archives and more time perusing. But the documents must be perused. A journalist's work may now begin on the Internet, but it can never end there.
Said Evans, founder and longtime head of the National Journalism Center, "The trick is to mix in technology with shoe-leather reporting."
THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR's Young Journalism Training program is still in its infancy, but if the first Young Writers Workshop is any indication, the combination of training and networking opportunities the program offers are a gem of an opportunity.
Headed up by TAS associate editor W. James Antle III, the program seeks to give conservative journalists -- many of whom are local to D.C. -- a comparative advantage in a job market simultaneously more crowded than ever and with fewer jobs than ever. By providing hands-on training with the opportunity to publish clips on the Spectator's website, the goal is to continue in the Spectator's tradition as a forum for young, "irreverent" writers to springboard their careers.
The Young Writers' Workshop panel closed with Wlady Pleszczynski, editorial director of The American Spectator, who offered his thoughts on "the role of an alternative magazine."
The American Spectator began in 1967 as "The Alternative," a conservative paper on the liberal environs of Indiana University's Bloomington campus. The Alternative foreshadowed the conservative campus newspaper movement continued by Counterpoint at the University of Chicago, and Collegiate Network publications such as the Dartmouth Review and the Michigan Review.
The American Spectator moved to Washington in 1985. "But unlike a lot of other conservative publications, we didn't move here to 'become a part of' D.C. And in many ways we still haven't." Pleszczynski decried the "herd mentality" that's all too common in a place like Washington, one the Spectator has been mindful to avoid.
Robert Novak noted that "anyone who wants to be a journalist can't have too high an opinion of the political class." The American Spectator, founded and edited by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. (who could not be present because of a flight delay), has always operated in that same vein, particularly during the Clinton years, when the publication became a leading exposer of its many scandals. Such efforts, in concert with their legitimization by the Clinton impeachment hearings, "put the Spectator on the map," according to Evans.
But, as Pleszczynski laments, conservatism's gains from the Reagan era and the "Revolution of 1994" are all but squandered. Between ethics scandals and the incompetence of Republican big-spending leadership, conservatism has lost a lot of trust with the American people.
"We have to rebuild conservatism's credibility from scratch," Pleszczynski contended. "The Right has to do much better...but that will only happen if journalists force them. That's your job."
Alfred S. Regnery, publisher of The American Spectator, plans to host Young Writers Workshops every six months.
As the old journalism joke goes, "an editor's job is to separate the wheat from the chaff -- and then to print the chaff." The Young Journalism Training program exists to give its writers the tools to write the wheat, and then ensure its inclusion in print.
"The most powerful instrument of information technology ever invented is between your ears," remarked Evans. "Use it."
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