Monday, September 19, 2011

Steve Coll on the Virtues of the Newspaper Life

Steve Coll, explaining how he defines his role at The New America Foundation, recalls what is perhaps a surprising inspiration: the newsroom room.
As I considered the possibility [of becoming President of the Foundation], I reflected on my two years of semi-self-employment and worried that I might be getting dumber. I thought about all the ways being around other people’s talent and work in a newsroom had been part of my own way of working. New America has always been influenced by journalism--Fareed Zakaria and Jim Fallows were on the board, and Jim was the chairman when I was appointed. That gave me some comfort. The idea of sliding into an environment that might combine journalism and scholarship also appealed. But it was a bit of a leap of faith. It’s worked out wonderfully--the place has many of the benefits of a newsroom, in terms of all the smart and eclectic people working on interesting projects...
[H/T Ezra Klein]  That's particularly rich when you realize that his "two years of semi-self-employment" were spent with The New Yorker magazine.  But I can relate: I've had the unutterable privilege to spend (much of) the past 40 years on the faculty of one of the world's great universities (with working visits at several others).  I've had collegues with have been challenging, engaging and kind--people with whom I've been proud to share my working life.

Yet I'd have to say that the most stimulating crowd I ever kept company with are not the academics but the gang of ruffians in the city room at The Louisville Times, 1961-68.  They might not have been any brighter than the academics but they certainly weren't stupider and they had an ease, an openness about them that made life sweet beyond compare.  Of course, I was only 32 when I left and if you can't be happy in your 20s, you're in deep tapioca.

And I'd have to say that second place goes to another non-academic environment: the big round table in the back room at Wong's Chinese Restaurant at Sixth and Wilshire in LA.  This is where we repaired for lunch from the law firm where I spent a bit of time int he 70s and 80s.  Here, I suppose the theme was a common purpose and a common subject-matter.  We were a specialized bunch--bankruptcy--and the lunch-time give-and-take was the most stimulating seminar I've ever had the good luck to enjoy.

I suppose I'm putting my foot in it with my academic colleagues and I don't really want to: as I suggest they are extraordianry people and they've treated me with illimitable gnerosity and civility. But there is, ironically, something about the academy that can put you in  bit of a hole: everybody's work is a bit too specialized, too arcane: everybody has too many of his own deadlines, not enough time or disposition just to relax or explore.  And ah, to be 28 again...

Afterthought:  I just now remembered a familiar canard of my newspaper days: "It must be wonderful to be a newspaperman: you meet such interesting people."--"Yes, and they're all other newspapermen."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i was in the Louisville Times newsroom with jack some of those years and he's right. Bill Greider was there. Dick Harwood -- who i succeeded as political reporter -- went from there to washpost. courier journal won a pulitzer for coverage of strip mining in kentucky but some major work was done by times staff. ward sinclair, peter milius also went to Washpost. ayer was smartest -- he went to law school.