In my sophomore year of college, I emailed a semi-famous journalist and editor of a small magazine I admire to ask for advice. I was starting to think that this whole journalism-as-a-career thing might be a possibility for me, and I wanted to know how to actually be good at it. So I asked him — how did he get to be so good at what he did, and how could I do that?
I didn’t really expect him to respond to me. When he did respond, it wasn’t a response I expected. He just sort of fell into it. I had it all wrong, he said — in reality, he was a semi-failed novelist, backed into a corner of journalism and literary criticism so that he could pay the bills. He wrote nonfiction sort of begrudgingly.
And then he gave me an actual piece of advice, all the more valuable given his experience. He said to surround yourself with people who put pressure on your writing. It’s hard to find someone who exerts pressure on you at Pipe Dream. It’s easy to find people who are frantic, who are enormously busy and wrangle complicated ideas and situations into fairly smooth prose. But in a place where everyone’s journalism education is inhibited by the lack of a robust, formal journalism program, there aren’t too many craftspeople floating around — people who can take the time to examine your sentences with a microscope and bring forth the shining particles among the debris of adjectives and adverbs.
Few people who have careers in journalism went to Binghamton University. If you graduate with an accounting degree, chances are you’ll be sitting a holler away from a Binghamtonian on your first job. There’s no such thing in the journalism world. Everyone seems to have gone to Syracuse, Missouri, Columbia or Northwestern, with the occasional clump of alumni from Cornell and Yale. In other words, East Coast colleges with strong journalism programs.
BU has no such thing. It has Pipe Dream, a small, twice-weekly paper dear to my heart, and I hope to the heart of every other person to pass through whatever incarnation of its office. The foundations of my journalism education came from Pipe Dream, and those foundations were shaky. Some parts are strong — recognizing the importance of deadlines, learning how to turn natural curiosity into information for an article. Other parts came secondhand from a seemingly useless conference in New Orleans, and then firsthand from a definitely useless conference in Philadelphia, where it seemed like speakers who were actually reporters and students with ambition were equally scarce.
The modern newsroom prioritizes speed; Pipe Dream does not. This is a blessing. To take multiple days to write and polish an article is an amazing thing, and a condition that lets one produce good work. Pipe Dream’s main product — journalism — is accompanied by a revenue-generating print product. The modern newsroom doesn’t have that. The anachronisms don’t really help when you need to adapt your skills to a full-time job in journalism. But they do give you a little breathing room in the time of your life when you need it most; some time to find a voice. Maybe that’s something good to have — regardless of what technical skill-set you end up with.