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July 20, 2011

Column #1,560

Why Not A Career in Journalism?

By Mike McManus

            With this column, I complete 30 years of writing Ethics & Religion.  And it was 50 years ago this summer that I got my first job as a reporter for my hometown paper, The Stamford Advocate.

            However, that would never have happened, if there weren’t an angel at The Wall Street Journal, encouraging writers from liberal arts colleges to consider reporting as a career.

            During my junior year at Duke, a professor asked me, “Don’t you write for The Chronicle?”  I replied, “I wrote for it last year, but did not get promoted, so I’m in student government.”

            “The Wall Street Journal has something it calls `The Newspaper Fund’ which encourages  applying for a cub reporter job in the summer between your junior and senior year.  Write 250 words on why you’d like to be chosen.  If you get the job, and complete it successfully, the Journal will give you a $500 scholarship on top of what you’d earn as a reporter. And you can call yourself a Wall Street Journal intern to help land the job.”

            I wrote, “I’m an idealist and think I could serve more people at a younger age as a reporter than in any other profession.” 

            I was selected, and landed a reporter’s job in 1961 at $60 a week.  The summer before, I had earned $85 weekly as a stockroom clerk for Pitney-Bowes. If it weren’t for the WSJ’s $500, I would have lost $250 that summer.

            My first assignment was obituaries.  The editor said, “Always ask how the name is spelled.  You might hear Smith, when it is Smyth.”  In the evenings I volunteered as a tutor with other college kids, helping black kids to read.  It was pioneering program begun by a Yale sophomore, Joe Lieberman – yes, the future U.S. Senator.

            I wrote a story about the program, and it made page 1, my first by-lined story “By Mike McManus.”  I was very proud, until I came to work the next day. My regular editor, who had been off the day before, was angry.  “Someone gave you a byline, when you’ve only been here a few weeks.  If I had been on duty, that would not have happened, and not on Page 1.”

            I was bewildered.  At summer’s end, the editor-in-chief said to me: “Mike we are going to tell the Wall Street Journal that you did a good job. But I don’t think you should consider newspapering as a career.  You care too much about your stories.  You need distance.”

            Again, I was stunned.  I loved the work.  Each story gave me a chance to research a corner of the world that I would never have known.  However, I took his advice seriously and applied for grad schools in foreign affairs.

            In February, I was suspended for a year from Duke because I had a car when I signed an agreement not to have one, because I had a college loan. I rationalized I had only paid $50 for it, but was in the wrong.  Suddenly, I needed to get a job.

            As a former Wall Street Journal intern, I interviewed at The Washington Post but was only offered a copyboy job.  I learned Don Carter, who ran the Newspaper Fund, was in Washington.  

            He gave me priceless advice, “Mike, forget Washington.  You’ve had too little experience to make it here.  What you need to do is work for the next year as a reporter for a good local newspaper.”  Like what?  He opened Editor & Publisher, a weekly magazine about the business, looked at the classified ads, and said, The Middletown (NY) Times-Herald Record is perfect. It’s only seven years old and already put another paper out of business.  A lot of Columbia J students go there for their first job.

            Before leaving Washington, I got an offer to work at the Catholic paper for $100 a week. In Middletown, Editor Al Romm asked me the population of the world and to name five U.S. Senators not from my state. He offered me a job and said most evenings I’d cover meetings of village or school boards. You can write about anything during the day, even editorials.  We’ll give you a camera to be a photographer.”

            Sounded great! The pay?  $75.  I took it.

            A year later, I was a TIME correspondent in Argentina, began my first syndicated column, “The Northern Perspective,” on Frostbelt issues in 1977. A sermon inspired me to start Ethics & Religion in 1981, in which I try to suggest answers for tough moral issues.

              As my father-in-law used to say, “I am a happy man.” 

            What is now called the Dow Jones News Fund made $470,000 in grants to 86 interns this year. Interested? See

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