An Interview with Journalist and Editorial Writer, James Lynn

An Interview with Journalist and Editorial Writer, James Lynn

A Lifelong Love of Writing Creates a Career

Two kinds of people go into journalism – those who want to write for a living, and those who want to mingle and schmooze with people who make news, report on their doings and perhaps eventually become newsmakers themselves, reports James Lynn. “I was the writing kind,” says Mr. Lynn, who retired from Newsday in 2002 as deputy editorial page editor and editor of the other opinion pages.

As a grammar school student, a Panama Canal essay led to an award from Spanish-American war veterans. As a scholarship philosophy student at Princeton University, he found a way to make writing pay as a sports freelancer for wire services and newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and several New Jersey cities. A member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, he received several professional honors over the course of his career, including the Jefferson Fellowship from University of Hawaii's East-West Center.

Mr. Lynn's 40-plus year journalism career offered the chance to meet and write about public figures, as well as the opportunity to influence public policy, he says. “I can't think of many jobs that offer more satisfaction than one that gives you not just an opportunity, but a duty, to find out what politicians or entertainers or corporations or sports figures are really like and tell the world about it.”

Mr. Lynn & His Career

How did your career unfold?

If I had gone to a different college, I probably would have worked at the campus daily newspaper. But as a scholarship student at Princeton, I found a way to make journalism pay. I joined a press club whose members provided stories – mostly sports-related – to wire services and newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and several New Jersey cities.

After college, through the father of a college roommate, I was hired by a daily newspaper in the New York City borough of Queens. From there, I went to Newsweek, and then to the New York Herald Tribune, which went out of business less than three years later. I worked briefly as a ghostwriter on a book about Congress, then as an information officer for a commission preparing to revise the New York State constitution. I spent a couple years writing and delivering editorials for a New York television station, then moved on to editorials and documentaries for a radio station. Finally, I landed at Newsday, a big, prosperous newspaper on Long Island, just east of New York City. I worked on its opinion pages for almost 30 years, until I retired in 2002.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I'm not sure I was inspired. But I remember the first real journalist I ever met - an Associated Press correspondent who had covered World War II in the Pacific until he came down with some tropical disease and had to come home. He was a friend of my parents, and when I was about 11 he took me on a tour of The Evening Star offices in Washington; the AP bureau was in the same building. I think I still have a lead slug (a line of type made from molten lead) with my byline on it that a Linotype operator punched out for me. I also had a Star paper route at about the same age (the Star ceased publication in 1981 after 130 years).

What has been your personal key to success?

Maybe it's not so much success as survival, and maybe it's mostly luck. Journalism has always been a precarious career choice, and lately it's been getting worse, as newspapers and even TV networks have cut back their coverage. It was my good fortune that whenever I quit or got fired or my paper folded, there was always another job waiting before I had to collect an unemployment check.

What awards and/or successes have you received? How important is such recognition to you, personally, and to your career?

I haven't won many awards, and I can't remember ever hanging one on my wall, so I guess they haven't been very important to me. Certainly the best was a Jefferson Fellowship, which provided a couple months studying and reporting at the University of Hawaii's East-West Center and a month touring Japan and several countries in Southeast Asia.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

Since I'm retired, my personal goal is to see as much of my grandchildren as time and distance permit. My "professional" goal is to become a competent dispatcher for my local volunteer ambulance squad.

Job Information & Advice

Tell us about your role at Newsday. What were your key responsibilities?

As deputy editorial page editor of Newsday I wrote editorials and sometimes bylined columns, edited those written by others, wrote headlines and made it fit in the available space on the editorial page. As editor of the other opinion pages (four most weekdays, more on Sundays), I was responsible for assigning and accepting contributions, approving layouts and headlines and for supervising the letters editor and several copy editors.

Can you describe a typical day of work?

Participate in the morning editorial conference, perhaps lunch with a public official, write an editorial in the afternoon. Edit other editorials, write headlines, close the page.

What were the tools of the trade that you used the most? What was your favorite gadget?

A computer (now often a laptop) and a telephone (now normally wireless) are essential. A voice recorder is often useful, but a notebook and a ballpoint pen are standard.

How do you use computers? Are there specialty software programs for your profession? If so, what are they and what do they do?

Computers are now used for research (finding documents, reading published material), reporting (taking notes), writing, editing (programs can show the original copy, all changes made by consecutive editors as well as a clean final version), layout and typesetting.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students seeking a journalism career?

Mostly badly paid ones at small papers, sometimes even weeklies rather than dailies. Even if you've made a good impression as an intern at a big paper, the big paper will probably want you to get more seasoning at a smaller one.

How available are internships?

Quite a few papers offer paid summer internships. Some even provide decent salaries. And some have programs specifically designed to recruit women and people of color.

Does working for a prestigious organization make a difference?

Some of the prestige rubs off and you may have a better chance of getting your calls returned. But don't count on your organization to provide your prestige. Organizations get to be prestigious by hiring good people in the first place. Concentrate on doing good work even in sorry surroundings. And try to develop an idea of what you'd like your next move to be.

What is the average salary in the field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

I have no idea what the average is. Beginning reporters at small papers are typically paid a pittance. Senior reporters and editors at a few elite papers can expect to make more than $100,000 a year. If we're talking TV anchors, the sky's the limit, but that may not last.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education.

I have a bachelor's degree from Princeton. My major was philosophy.

Is a formal journalism education necessary to succeed in the field, particularly if a person is already a talented writer?

I've known a few extremely talented reporters who never finished college, but college is pretty much a standard credential these days. And usually working on a college paper will give you a chance to find out how interested you really are in a journalistic career. I used to sneer at journalism schools. I still believe that journalism is best learned by doing, perhaps starting on a high school or college paper. But I now also think some formal training is a good idea. I'd recommend majoring in political science, economics or history rather than journalism, take some journalism courses, or maybe a one-year graduate program for those who can afford it.

How did you find a school?

I listened to my high school guidance counselor and applied to just two schools. I suppose I'd apply to at least half a dozen today.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

Expense, obviously. And you need to decide whether you want a fairly narrow journalism program or something more liberal-artsy. College guides should give you some idea of how programs differ.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

Columbia University has a good one-year master's program. Undergraduate programs at Northwestern University, Syracuse University and University of Missouri - Columbia have good reputations. Again, check out a college guide or two.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

It may to some degree, but chances are that you're going to be evaluated mostly on the basis of the work you've done – which you show with clips (or if you're interested in radio or TV, your tapes).

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree?

As soon after college as you can afford it, if you're talking about a journalism degree. You can go back later for a law degree or an MBA or whatever if it turns out to be important.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

If so, what? I might major in history or politics rather than philosophy.

Industry Information & Advice

What are some common myths about the journalism profession?

Probably the most common myth is that reporters consciously slant their stories to conform to their publication's editorial line. The vast majority of them don't. What they do is try to get the essential facts of a story and arrange them in a way that will give the reader the clearest possible idea of what happened and what it means. But of course no two reporters will write a story exactly the same way, and the differences may result from unconscious or insufficiently suppressed biases. Editorial writers, unlike reporters, are allowed – in fact encouraged – to be biased.

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

The Internet has brought fierce competition, not only in advertising but in content. Blogs are proliferating endlessly, it seems. But of course the Internet is a wonderful tool for reporting, especially the investigative kind.

How is the journalism job market? How do you think it will be in five years?

The job market is lousy right now. Even the biggest and best newspapers are shrinking their news staffs as they try to figure out how to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue to the Internet. National and international bureaus are particularly vulnerable, and even papers that want to put more emphasis on local coverage are trying to do it with a minimum of new hires. I have no idea what the market will be like in five years, but I suspect that there will be fewer newspapers and a good deal more original reporting on Internet sites once somebody figures out an economic model to make that work. Today's blogs aren't a substitute for on-the-ground reporting, which is expensive almost by definition.

Closing Remarks

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the journalism profession to be successful?

Absolutely. Being a reporter is a great job, but it's not likely to make you rich and it can be hugely frustrating (for a fairly accurate depiction of the frustrations as well as the joys, rent the DVD of All the President's Men). I can't think of many jobs that offer more satisfaction than one that gives you not just an opportunity, but a duty to find out what politicians or entertainers or corporations or sports figures are really like and tell the world about it. But the economics of journalism are changing rapidly, and the field is likely to get even more competitive than it already is.

If you would like to follow up with James Lynn personally about this interview, click here.

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