Gerald M. Sass Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Mass Communication acceptance speech delivered by Richard S. Holden August 6, 2010, in Denver, Colorado at the ASJMC Conference.
Thank you. Thank you so much. This is indeed an honor. It’s especially rewarding that it’s named after Mr. Sass, whom I met shortly after I became executive director in 1992 and whom I’ve admired for many years for his efforts in promoting diversity in our industry. Sadly, I see less and less emphasis being put on this area today, something I hope will change in the not-too-distant future. And I’m proud to serve with him on the University of Arizona’s journalism school advisory council.
Thanks also to the deans and directors who play such a vital role in our programs. In particular, I am thinking of Doctor Johnson at Western Kentucky, Dean Anderson and Dean Hardin at Penn State, Dean Brooks at Missouri, Dean Berens and before her, Dean Norton at Nebraska. Thanks also to all the professors who have worked tirelessly to train our interns for nearly 50 years. I salute all of the work that you have done and continue to do.
And a special thanks to my wife, Mary-Anna, who was able to be here this evening. This is quite a role reversal for us. Mary-Anna is the mayor of our beautiful borough of Madison, New Jersey. And I think this is the first time that I have been up here speaking while she sits in the audience. It’s always the other way around. I’m reminded of a Beetle Bailey joke where General Halftrack asks his wife to drive to a meeting because he will be speaking and will need a drink beforehand. Mrs. Halftrack suggests that Beetle should drive because, if the general is speaking, she will need two or three.
I want to speak a bit about the history of what began as the Newspaper Fund in 1958, became the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund in the mid 1980s and earlier this year became the Dow Jones News Fund.
It began under the direction of legendary Dow Jones chairman Barney Kilgore (I often wonder if he didn’t legally change his name to “legendary”). His first move was to select Don Carter as our first executive director. Don wanted to be here this evening but was unable to attend. He received this award nearly 30 years ago and, at 93, he remains active with the News Fund, calling me frequently and always coming up from Georgia to attend our annual meetings. Yep, that’s the same Carter family of, as Don likes to say, “maaa famous cousin Jimmy.”
In the past half century, more than 20,000 high school and college students, high school teachers and advisers and journalism professors have benefited from our programs. What began as a modest first program to train high school journalism advisers has grown sharply. In 1967 executive director Paul Swensson came up with the idea of creating a workshop for high school students focused largely on training inner city minority kids. I think it’s worth it to note that Paul created this six months BEFORE the Kerner Commission issued its famous report. He also developed our editing training programs and began producing a publication for high school journalism teachers.
I’m reminded of a comment made by the Knight Foundation’s Del Brinkman at a meeting years back to decide how grant money to an ASNE program should be spent. At one point, Del made the observation, “can anyone here come up with a program that the Newspaper Fund isn’t doing already.”
I’d like to think that still holds true today.
And there have been many famous folks who have come through our programs, including an Attorney General of the United States, a Miss America, a chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. So, not everyone decided to pursue a career in journalism. But most did, and that list includes our current News Fund president, a former chairman and chief executive of Dow Jones, a former editor in chief of Time Incorporated and the world-renowned designer Mario Garcia.
That was then and this is now. Mary-Anna kids me about how I have only three things I can talk about—how to write a resume, how to find an internship and how to conduct yourself in a job interview. I thought I’d address some of the biggest mistakes that kids make in these areas. Now some of you might say, “this would never happen with a student at my school.” Trust me, it does or I wouldn’t be bringing it up.
First, make sure they are aware than nearly all news organizations now require a drug test. If a student fails, he won’t be hired. If he is hired and later tests positive, he will be fired. It’s as simple as that. I think you can guess why I bring this up.
Second, I taught at the Maynard Institute’s Editing Program at the University of Arizona for 20 years. Each summer, on the first day I was there, I came wearing a suit and tie. Now this is Tucson and the middle of the summer. People would ask why I was dressed like that. My answer always was that it’s better to be the only person in the room with a coat and tie than the only one without one. Same applies with a job interview. It’s a lot easier to dress down the second day than it is to dress up.
Remind them that they are entering a professional world and that they should act professionally. We had an application from a student a couple of years ago who’s email address was hot body at hot mail dot com. This may have been true—she didn’t make our cut so I never had a chance to meet her—but it certainly wasn’t professional. The same holds true for those answering machines that sound like something out of Animal House. Certainly not professional.
Then there are some things that they do that are just plain stupid. There’s no other word for it. Just when I thought I had heard everything, I had a call from the editor of a major newspaper in the south. He mentioned that he had asked the intern out to lunch the following day only to get the response, “I can’t. That’s my day off.” Unlike previous interns at the paper, the young man wasn’t asked to stay on.
We’ve actually had only one intern fired during my time here. It was at an Ottaway newspaper, part of Dow Jones, of course, who called in sick four days in a row. It wasn’t long before the editor—this is a most incestuous industry, you know—found out that the intern was trying out on the desk of another newspaper. Another no no.
Nothing offends me more than students who don’t honor their commitments, though I’ll admit there are a few exceptions—family circumstances, health issues and a couple of others.
But many times over the years we have had students accept our internships in December only to call us in February or March and say “something came up.” What that something is was an offer of what the student thought was a better job. I know of at least a dozen instances where a student will accept one of our editing internships, then call another newspaper and say to the effect, “I wasn’t good enough to get one of your internships, but I was good enough to get one from Dow Jones.” At which point the person on the other end of the line says “Well, let’s rethink this” and offers the student a job.
Another area that comes up more and more frequently is the so-called social media. Warn your students that what they say and do on Facebook, My Space, You Tube and the like can and very well may be used against them. Their retort is invariably something like “I have a First Amendment right to say or write anything I want.” That may be true, but they don’t have a First Amendment right for me to hire them.
Resumes are another sore point with me, and with many professional editors. I can’t tell you the number of times I read a student’s cover letter, then read her resume and it tells me exactly the same thing. Tell the students that the resume should provide an employer with the “who, what, when and where” and the cover letter should give the “why and how.” And speaking of resumes, I’d like to shoot the person who first came up with the line “references available on request.” I’m the one hiring, I’m not “requesting” anything. Students should know that most editors are looking for three references—one to discuss the student’s academic life, one to talk about professional work and a third to talk about the student’s character. That almost always works.
You’d be amazed at how many students don’t bother to list their computer skills or the fact that they are fluent in another language. Those are two things employers look closely at. And warn them not to overstate their language ability. If you say you are fluent in Arabic, someone on the news organization’s staff will call you and interview you—in Arabic.
News organizations aren’t without blame either. Two examples have stuck with me for years. The editor of a major newspaper in the west—not the Denver Post, which has been a great partner with us for years—wrote that he would no longer be participating in the program because he had asked for a minority student the past two years and hadn’t gotten one. I wrote back and told him that he indeed did get minority students—Hispanic females to be precise. His response—which I still have—“Well, they didn’t LOOK like minorities.”
And there was the case of a major newspaper in the east that requested we stop sending Asian students because the newspaper “didn’t have a problem with that group.” You can’t make it up.
I’d like to spend a minute on another area that is troubling me more and more. That’s the spread of unpaid internships. First, I’m not sure if they’re legal. There’s a lot of discussion about that. More important, I think it’s just wrong. How on earth are we ever going to create more diversity in our industry when internships basically go to the kids whose parents can afford them. I read a while back where someone paid $7,500 or some ridiculous figure so his kid could have an internship on the Huffington Post. That’s absurd. We still require our news organizations to pay the kids at least $325 a week, but many still balk at that. Some now pay only the minimum wage, which I guess beats nothing.
Equally troubling are those universities that send a news organization a check from which the student is paid. I don’t like that one bit either. And then there are the news organizations that figure they can send us a tax-deductible contribution from which we would pay the intern. It took our legal department about 30 seconds to shoot down that idea. So if you get similar offers from an organization, beware.
A final, personal point. I talked earlier about drug tests. For the guys in the audience tonight, there’s another test out there that is very important. If you haven’t been tested for prostate cancer, please do—for your students, for your faculty and most important for yourself and your family. The reason I mention this is that I was recently diagnosed with it. Fortunately it’s in an early stage and should be easily treatable. But had I not been tested, I would not have known.
In closing, I’m reminded of what a good friend of Mary-Anna’s and mine often said. “To be immortal, a speech need not be eternal.” This was neither. But it was my honor to speak to you this evening.
Thanks and good night.