Getting Started in Journalism—and Sometimes Feeling Like an Impostor

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Learning to use a Teletype machine in the UPI bureau in Minneapolis.

By Jack Limpert

Mike Feinsilber recently wrote about starting his first newspaper while in fifth grade, then becoming editor of his high school and college newspapers before embarking on a 50-year wire service career. Mike and I sometimes have a sandwich with another writer or editor—this past week it was with Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson, who started his getting-paid journalism career while in high school and went on to be the longtime Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

As I listen to old-timers like Mike and Pat, I can’t shake the thought: Guys, I’m not a real journalist like you are.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I had zero interest in journalism. I loved playing baseball, football, and basketball and studied just enough to get good grades, but when it came time for college, I had no idea what to do. My dad had died when I was 10 and my mother hoped I’d work where he had worked, the Kimberly-Clark paper company, so I majored in chemical engineering. A mistake, and I left college and spent two years in the Air Force. Returning to school, I tried business administration for a year, then philosophy, then psychology, then law school.

I was 26 when I dropped out of law school. I had run out of school options and had no job prospects. But I had worked at a lot of jobs.

During the summer after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and before law school, I tended bar at the classy Edgewater Hotel in Madison. One night two men came in and had a few drinks. It was a quiet night and we talked. They asked me what was good for dinner. I walked back to the kitchen, talked to the chef, and told them what looked good. They had dinner and left.

About midnight they came back, had a few more drinks, and just before closing asked if I’d be interested in working for their company. I told them thanks but I was heading to California for law school.

After six months of law school, I knew that wasn’t my future. What saved me was keeping the business card of the man who had offered me a job: Mims Thomason, president of United Press International. I figured it was a long shot but I wrote him from California: “You may not remember me but I was the bartender in Madison, Wisconsin…”

Two weeks later I was on a plane from San Francisco to Minneapolis to go to work for UPI. I opened the bureau at 5 a.m., learned to file the broadcast wire, moved on to the St. Louis and Detroit bureaus, edited small papers in Detroit and San Jose, started a weekly paper in Washington, D.C., did a Congressional Fellowship, and went to work for the Washingtonian magazine, where I stayed for 40 years.

As I stumbled into journalism at age 26, guys like Mike Feinsilber and Pat Furgurson already were doing what they always felt destined to do and were doing it very well. Who was this law school dropout whose only connection to journalism was serving drinks to two wire service guys?

Even after 50 years in the business, it’s hard to shake what psychiatrists call the impostor syndrome.
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But a case can be made that there are different good ways to find your way into journalism. By the time I was 14-years-old I had a part-time job and there were a lot of them. I worked a summer at a Kimberly-Clark paper mill, pumped gas and did oil changes at a service station, tried for a month to sell aluminum storm windows door-to-door—anything to make some money. Sometimes I felt I was failing at things, but it was learning even if at the time it didn’t feel like learning.

One learning experience was getting to law school and finding out that—contrary to what you see on television— there really isn’t much mystique or excitement in the law. Within a few weeks, you find out that there are two kinds of law—statutory law (laws passed by Congress, state legislatures, city councils, etc.) and case law (decisions by judges). Both kinds of law come into play and what most lawyers do is become an expert on the statutory and case law in a narrow area such as taxes, real estate, or estate planning.

It also was a learning experience to study chemical engineering, business administration, philosophy, and psychology.

And tending bar also is a pretty good education–it really helps develop your b.s. detector.

In hiring writers and editors for the Washingtonian, I wasn’t anti-journalism school but I probably did have a bias for people who had done some interesting work. When evaluating young people for our internship program, I looked more at work history than at academics. One dealbreaker was the kid whose only work history was spending every summer as a life guard at the local country club swimming pool. I liked young people who had worked at something that gave them a feel for the real world.

Back in the 1970s, I also gave applicants bonus points for any military service—but by the 1980s it seemed no prospective journalist had ever served in the military. Too bad—basic training teaches you a lot.
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This is the fourth Getting Started in Journalism posting. If you have a getting started story you’d like to tell, send an e-mail to [email protected]

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