I wasn’t sure if the young people in the classroom were going to get the “Seinfeld” reference. I figured the St. John’s University journalism students I was invited to speak with Monday had to be 5, maybe 6 years old when that show went off the air.
I was in Queens to talk about the art of interviewing, which I did, and the students gave me their undivided attention. But they appeared most interested in how to land a job. I didn’t blame them; they know they’re entering a competitive field in a down economy.
What I told them was pretty simple, and it probably applies to most things relating to building a career and a happy life: They have to take chances — and, I guess, be a little nuts.
I first got into journalism my junior year of college, when I took a Reporter 101 course and began writing for the school newspaper, fittingly called The Review. Although I was passed over for a city editor job at The Review the next year, I had compiled a bunch of decent clips come graduation, and the paper’s editor-in-chief referred me to a small daily newspaper in neighboring Cecil County, Md.
Soon after graduation, I interviewed at The Cecil Whig — which covered a rural and suburban area not much different from Riverhead Town. There were no jobs open at the time, the Whig’s editor told me, but he asked if I would be interested in freelancing and gave me a story about gypsy moths to work on. (I now realize the assignment was probably a tryout.) The editors liked my story and told me I did a good job; it even ran on the next day’s cover.
After that — like Seinfeld’s neighbor Kramer, who started showing up for work at a company called Brandt Leland, even though he’d never been hired there — I began arriving at the Whig’s newsroom every morning in a suit and tie. I figured I would sit at one of the empty desks until I got an assignment. And if I didn’t, I would go home at 5 p.m. I can still recall the surprise of managing editor David Healey when he saw me that first day.
On Monday, the St. John’s students quickly got the Kramer comparison. Many were laughing and a few even yelled out some memorable quotes from the episode. I went on to tell them I “worked” every day at the Maryland newspaper for three or four months. The students continued to laugh.
Later in life, I came to realize that the editors there probably had little choice but to keep giving me assignments as if I were a staffer. They were nice people; how could they tell a kid who showed up every morning in a suit and did a decent job to leave — even if my weekly freelance pay wasn’t in the budget? (At $40 a story, it started to add up.)
Sometime that September, when the Whig staff’s political reporter left for a job elsewhere, editor Terry Peddicord said something along the lines of, “I guess this is your position; you’ve already been doing the job for months.”
My faux job didn’t end like Kramer’s, and that was a good thing. As Kramer was being fired, he famously explained, “I don’t even work here.” But I needed to pay my back rent, and I managed to make a career out of my own goofy stunt.
I also told the St. John’s students that back in college, when I finally chose to study journalism, people came out of the woodwork to discourage me — most likely not on purpose. People, I found, just loved to point out how competitive a given field is and how it’s so tough to break into. But I was pretty good at newspaper writing. Besides, there were people in every city in the country working in journalism. What did they have on me?
I was fortunate enough to ignore my classmates and even the misguided adults, but I know that more often than not, students and young people get discouraged instead of sticking to their dreams. So I was glad to be able to offer some words of encouragement on Monday.
And provide a laugh.
Michael White is the Riverhead News-Review editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.