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"Pssst, wanna read some hot narrative?" (journalism-school memories)


When I first arrived at Columbia journalism school in 1972, I couldn't help but be impressed by by-lines of graduates pinned to the bulletin board. There, displayed like glittering prizes in the race for renown, were clippings from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and, of course, the most revered institution of all, The New York Times. Each by-line was carefully circled in ink, followed by a modest "CJS' and the year of graduation. You, the clippings whispered to us, were about to become the finest of the Fourth Estate.

The first rude blow to my ego was the discovery that I wouldn't get published for a year. As someone who'd just been a star feature writer and editor of my college paper, this was the equivalent of oxygen deprivation. Other former hotshots seemed equally depressed at our new anonymity. We spent the bulk of our time going through rote article-writing exercises that were graded by aging geezers who had once worked on The New York World-Telegram. A typical exercise might involve the teacher reciting some facts, then leaving the room as we composed an article under simulated deadline pressure. "Go with what you've got,' he told us as we struggled to fabricate a story from a few minutes of scribbling. While this maxim may not seem like much, it was one of only two concretely useful things I learned while attending Columbia. The other was the advice of our "teacher' of investigative reporting: "If you look like a bum, you'll get treated like a bum.' So, with tuition and living expenses costing my family $9,000, I calculate the value of each hackneyed adage at a mere $4,500.

In the area that most interested me, magazine writing, the school was hopelessly behind the times. The New Journalism had been creating a stir since the late 1960s, and I was hoping to emulate my heroes, David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, and Gay Talese. After all, I was in New York City, the heart of this journalism revolution. But I quickly discovered that the school's elder statesmen regarded Wolfe and his ilk as charlatans who simply fabricated facts and dialogue. There was absolutely no interest in the demanding particulars of the latest magazine writing: the narrative reconstruction, dialogue, or description that made it all so powerful. Two of my teachers showed some sympathy to the new style, but they didn't have the inclination or, perhaps, the knowledge to teach it in any depth. So we were stuck with instruction rooted in 1950s editions of the Saturday Evening Post, while just outside our walls Esquire, Rolling Stone, and New York magazine were experimenting with an exciting new journalism. I became an underground agitator for the New Journalism, handing out paperback copies of The World of Jimmy Breslin as if they were dirty postcards. "Pssst,' I'd whisper to a classmate, "wanna read some hot narrative?'

The one benefit of the magazine classes--and the school's prestige--was that we'd get to listen to famous journalists tell us about their success. My instructor was the living embodiment of success to us, with his ascot and perfectly tailored sport coat, chatting amicably about his novel or upcoming books or summers at the Cape. Along the way he undoubtedly gave us specific instruction about magazine writing, but I can't recall what it was.

All this doesn't mean that we didn't have a chance to learn a few useful skills. There was a photography course that I was too lazy to take, but I comfort myself now with the knowledge that, like most of the courses at the J-school, I could learn the same things today for only $45 and two nights at a local "Open University' or "Learning Annex.' We also got to practice rewriting and reading wire copy in front of a micropone, just like the grown-ups do. The studio, with its big clock and sound-proofed walls, looked like the real thing, too. And for those students with absolutely no journalism experience, the lessons in the rudiments of reporting no doubt were valuable. But for those print majors who were seeking to gain more advanced skills, the school didn't have much to offer.

My "thesis,' for instance, was a long magazine article on radio humorist Jean Shepherd, a hero of mine. My research consisted largely of attending his radio and concert performances and laughing at his stories. I enjoyed myself immensely, but, somehow, I don't think my work presented me with the rigorous academic challenge I associate with a thesis. Of course, like everything else I wrote that year, it remained unpublished, despite my efforts to sell it to magazines. Looking back, I think my career would have been better served if I'd simply skipped school, take my school expense money, and tried to bribe New York magazine editors. "Dear Mr. Felker,' I should have written, "enclosed is my manuscript on radio humorist Jean Shepherd and a $9,000 check. I hope you enjoy the article and I look forward to seeing it published soon. Thanks for your consideration.'
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Levine, Art
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1986
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