Found my first work ID badge earlier today. I was 22 when I started working for The Tennessean in 1994. Six days after graduating from college, I was in Nashville.
I was a complete fool.
Wish I could tell that idiot what I’ve learned in the ensuing 20 years. Hell, maybe I’ll try …
It’s me—Jeff. I’m writing you from the year 2014. Don’t worry—you’re still alive. You’re married, with two kids. All’s good.
But, really, all’s not good. See, you’re an asshole. Yes—you. You’re also a fool, and everyone in the newsroom knows it.
Where to begin? Well, first, you’re not nearly as good a journalist as you think you are. Actually—scratch that. You’re an awful journalist. Yeah, you can write an occasional witty phrase. But your reporting absolutely sucks. How about making a second call? A third call? A fourth call? How about doing research? Because you’re young and dumb, and because you considered yourself to be hot shit at the college paper, you think you’re better than all the other employees in the newsroom. Well, you’re not. They know how to cultivate sources and how to empathize with interview subjects; they’ve written about death and pain and suffering—things you don’t understand. All you do is talk and brag and boast. You refuse to listen to others. You rarely (really, never) take advice. You sling shit about older writers behind their backs, seemingly unaware that, one day in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be the older writer, and the youngsters will sling shit about you.
Remember when those two reporters offered to take you under their wings and help you approach stories? You said No, and you weren’t particularly polite about it. You thought you were too good for them; that they had nothing to contribute. That, Jeff, was just dickish. Or how about when the rival paper hired a young sportswriter, and you treated him as one would a maggot stuck to the bottom of his shoe. What was that, Jeff? Jealousy or insecurity? Answer: Both.
Jeff, I’ve been around. I’ve worked at different places. Here’s what you need to know: The key to emerging as a good—and respected—journalist isn’t “being the best” (your goal). Truth be told, there is no such thing as “the best.” Some folks will like your work, some will hate it. No, they key is to walk with humility; to respect others; to ask 1,001 questions, and listen to the 1,001 answers. All those clips you fought for … all those heated arguments you had with editors over one or two words—well, by 2014 the newspapers will have been long disintegrated. The memories, however, will remain fresh. Your colleagues will forever think of you as the brat; as the spoiled New Yorker who thought himself to be God’s gift to journalism. That will be your Nashville legacy, and it’ll be impossible to erase.
So, please, trust me. Wake up, rise up and stop being such a punk.
There’s still hope for you.