Journalists are victors of the moment

Perhaps more than any other profession, journalists live in moments, that hour’s story, that day’s deadline.

Zack Stalberg was made a legend for his Frank Rizzo moment. As a 2001 Philadelphia Weekly profile suggested:

Within two years the night rewrite kid is a City Hall reporter covering Frank Rizzo at a time when Rizzo was, as Stalberg recalls, “unstoppable … He was going to be governor and his image was untarnished and then–boom!” Boom, of course, was Stalberg himself, who persuaded the mayor to take a lie detector test to resolve a political dispute. Rizzo, as the whole city knows, failed the test in grand fashion, and Stalberg, as the whole city also knows, became someone who would make a name for himself. [Source]

They all can write. They all can write fast. They can develop sources and learn the processes – though names and titles and interests vary. But from the government of D.C. to the big cities like Philadelphia, most journalists are waiting for that moment that propels them to the forefront of their beat, their outlet, their region, their field, the country.

I recently worked with a younger example. David Spett was another who had been named by UWire one of the 100 most promising young journalists (See my page here).

In June, he told me over beers and $1 tacos that he wasn’t sure journalism was for him until “the attention.” While a student at Northwestern he wrote a story for his college newspaper questioning the use of unnamed sources by his journalism school’s dean.

It blew up. Spett got national acclaim. The Chicago Tribune would not shut up about it. It made Spett rethink journalism, he told me.

It was thrilling. That made me think about reporting.”

And why the hell shouldn’t he? This is a profession where you can ride one tip, a single story or a lucky break for a long time.

It’s a little extreme to call it a drug, but the service and excitement and, quite frankly, the attention that is meant to come with reporting attracts many. There is the theory of the beautiful on TV, but there has always been something about getting one’s name in print. Maybe a lot of journalists are people who want their name in the newspaper but aren’t sure they can do it – or want to do it – any way less direct than writing their name themselves.

In writing about the history of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association – for whom I am worked this summer – I mentioned the concept before, but journalism is said to have gone through a seismic shift after 1973, when two young reporters changed… everything.

To the outside world, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were two, young nothings at the fledgling Washington Post. Their breaking of the Watergate scandal is a perfect example of how journalists are shaped by moments, as much are politicians and Presidents. Both Woodward and Bernstein became journalists of the first degree because the right circumstances. I assure you there is an entire class of journalists who thought neither deserved that story.

But that doesn’t matter. You get the mayor to fail a lie-detector test, you call out a dean’s unnamed sources, you break one of the most significant political stories in a country’s history and a career is set.

Journalists do not make the news, we cover it. The better the news, it is fair to say, the better the opportunity to cover it is. I don’t care what your editor in Carlisle, Pa. or Cheyenne, Wyoming tells you, that is true.

Be ready for your moment – and always work to create more opportunities to find it.

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