Want to be a Journalist? Know Anything About People? About Life?

By Jack Limpert

The Washington Post had a good obit on the life of Dennis Farina, who for 30 years was a wonderful character actor in TV and movie crime dramas. How did he become an actor?  “Mr. Farina was in his late 30s and working in the burglary division of the Chicago police force when a chance encounter with director Michael Mann launched his acting career.”

The obit said Farina wasn’t much for talking about theories of acting. Here’s how he looked back on his career: “But before you actually become an actor, you know, maybe there’s something to be said for having lived a life.”

Before you begin, maybe there’s something to be said for having lived a life. Also a good idea for journalists?
After I mostly retired a year ago, I told myself I was starting this About Editing and Writing blog to try to help younger journalists understand what it’s like to do it, to describe how an editor works, to show, not tell. But I kind of knew that I also was trying to make sense of how I ended up working as a journalist for 50 years. How did someone at the age of 26, with no experience, become a journalist and survive?

Lots of writers describe a passion for journalism they felt as kids, how they always knew it was their future. When I graduated from high school in a small Wisconsin city, I was clueless. My dad, who died when I was 10, had worked for the Kimberly-Clark paper company and in those days most the boys in my high school class were going to do what their dads did. So I went to the University of Wisconsin to study chemical engineering.

How young men at age 18 go off the rails is another story. In my case I think it was panic: I wanted to escape my hometown but had no idea what to do and had nobody I could turn to for help. After a month of organic chemistry I knew that wasn’t my future. By the end of the first semester I had been kicked out of the dorm, by the end of the second semester out of the university.

In high school I had been a straight-A student and my mother expected great things. Back home after flunking out. More panic.

Six months of pumping gas and then I enlisted in the Air Force’s aviation cadet program, training to be a navigator. That went well until a medical emergency in a flight surgeon’s office ended any possibility of becoming an Air Force officer.

Back home, I went to one of the university’s local extension centers—the equivalent then of a junior college. I got a part-time job as a bartender and  decided to get serious and study business administration. After a few months of accounting classes, that also was not  my future.

I returned to the main UW campus in Madison, worked 40 hours a week as a bartender,  and tried to better understand life by majoring in philosophy. Logic and ethics were interesting but not the rest of it and philosophy was not a career path. I cobbled together a psychology major so I could graduate.

With no job prospects and some GI Bill, I went to Stanford Law School, hoping that might be a career. Six months later I wrote to a man I had talked with while tending bar in Madison. His name was Mims Thomason and his card said he was president of United Press International news service. “You may not remember me,” I said, “but I’m the bartender in Madison, Wisconsin, you once talked to about a job.”

Two weeks later I started in the Minneapolis bureau of UPI.
The point being that before becoming a journalist I had seven years of what seemed like one failure after another. Five years of college that didn’t prepare me for anything, an attempt to be an Air Force officer, lots of bartending jobs at everything from country clubs to a gritty bar next to a factory gate.

What did I learn? Failure humbles you. You try to learn from it.  You begin to accept that life can be hard and you have to learn to bounce back.

All those bartending jobs? You learn something about work, about people.

*When it’s busy, you have to hustle and keep smiling.

*Drunks aren’t as interesting as they think they are.

*Some bartenders steal from the house. Waitresses, too.

*There were ways to get more tips. I was good at connecting a face with a drink: Someone could come in a month later and I’d ask, “CC on the rocks?” People like to be remembered. And women in their thirties loved to be asked for their ID.

*People are much more complicated once you get to know them.

*People can be very surprising when you get below the surface.
In retrospect, I think an editor needs a good boredom detector and any journalist needs a good b.s. detector.

During five years of college I developed a pretty good boredom detector and as an editor I wasn’t going to let our writers bore our readers.

During that three years of bartending I developed a pretty good b.s. detector and as an editor I tried hard not to b.s. our readers.

Would  journalism school have been better training? Last week the University of Southern California announced it was changing its graduate journalism degree program from two years to one year, thereby costing a student only $56,867 in tuition. That’s cheaper than Columbia’s one-year graduate degree, which costs $58,008 for tuition.

An alternative path for prospective journalists: Tend bar at a couple of different places for a year, then spend another year working at jobs that expose you to other parts of the real world. Develop some empathy for people trying to make it, get a sense of how people behave while having a few drinks, get to know lots of different kinds of people.

Or do what Don Graham, heir to the Washington Post, did. After being elected president of the Harvard Crimson and graduating from Harvard in 1965, he volunteered for military service and went to Vietnam. Then he came back to Washington and joined the DC police department as a patrolman. Then he went to work for the family newspaper.

He’d likely agree with Dennis Farina that it’s good to live at least some of a life before you become an actor—or a journalist.

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