Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Review: Letters to a Young Journalist

Samuel G. Freedman
Letters to a Young Journalist
New York: Basic Books, 2006
ISBN: 978-0-465-02455-1. 183+viii pp. $22.95 (US)

Toward the end of Letters to a Young Journalist, Samuel G. Freedman discusses a dark time in the spring of 1997 when his hopes for literary success based on the book The Inheritance –- one of two runners-up to the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction –- seemed dashed. Despite excellent reviews and high honors, the book had only sold a few thousand copies.

Sam was teaching a book writing seminar at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism that semester, and while sitting before his students in that seminar, he thought “Why the hell are they listening to me? Don’t they know I’m a failure?”

The day I read that passage, I sent Sam an e-mail saying that we –- yes, I was one of the students in that seminar that semester –- listened to him because he was not then and is not now a failure.

I stand by my statement, and submit Letters to a Young Journalist to support it.

Letters to a Young Journalist by Samuel G. Freedman

Letters to a Young Journalist by Samuel G. Freedman

At a time when journalism is in upheaval, when journalism schools are being upbraided for not emphasizing the technological fad of the last five minutes, when newspapers and magazines are dying and many professional journalists wonder whether the profession will still allow them to make a living in this age of citizen (in other words, unpaid) journalists, this book offers a very personal meditation on what it takes to be a good journalist –- what it took yesterday, what it takes today, what it will continue to take in the future.

For those of us who witnessed Sam in his Old Testament, maybe-not-fear-of-God-but-damn-sure-fear-of-Sam glory, the book is relatively mild. But Sam does not indulge in insincerity. He tells you what he believes in clear, spare language. The fire that makes him one of the most inspiring teachers I have had is evident throughout.

In Sam’s world, there is no substitute for hard work. In his journalism, there is no substitute for the basics: diligent reporting, thoughtful writing, and cold-blooded editing. Flourish is no substitute for substance. Brilliant lines are no substitute for strong narrative. If a passage you love – maybe it’s the best passage ever written – if it does not advance your story, it has got to go. The most important lesson he offers young journalists, though is that if you claim the mantle of nonfiction, your work better not be fiction.

Sam makes these points and many others, using examples from his own career as well as that of others. In doing so, he displays mastery of one of the other hallowed elements of journalism –- the telling detail or anecdote. While Letters to a Young Journalist is not a textbook, Sam’s mastery of narrative, even in a book of advice like this one, makes it a pleasure to read. As a result, any young journalist who reads it is much more likely to remember the lessons therein.

In the past, journalists were segregated by medium or skill set: print versus broadcast, newspaper versus magazine, still photography versus film, reporters versus writers versus photographers versus editors. Those days are over: Journalists are now advised to learn dozens of new skills unimaginable to journalists of my father’s generation. The journalists’ vocabulary has evolved: from typewriter to Word to WordPress; from engraving to photo to Photoshop; from lead blocks to waxed paper to Quark to Dreamweaver; from broadsheet to Web to Blog and, now, Twitter.

With all the advice being offered to journalists concerned about surviving in their profession today, it seems easy to forget the fundamentals of good journalism are independent of platform. No matter what medium a journalist feels most comfortable in –- old media, new media, or social media –- there is no substitute for the essence distilled in Sam Freedman’s Letters to a Young Journalist.


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