Healthy Journalism

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why I kissed Paul Steiger

It wasn't meant to happen.

But when the chance came, I couldn't resist planting a damp one on the founding editor-and-chief of ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalism shop that has become a Pulitzer-winning powerhouse in three short years.

Steiger, who spent the first 41 years of his career as a reporter and editor for what he called "profit-making or at least profit-seeking newspapers," the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, came to Athens two weeks ago to deliver the prestigious McGill Lecture.

We met earlier in the day, when he and Hank Klibanoff were featured in a McGill Symposium panel called "Non-profit investigative reporting to the rescue?" Klibanoff was managing editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize as co-author of The Race Beat. This past year he left the newsroom for Emory University, where he's now a journalism professor.

These legendary editors spent an hour discussing business and editorial upheavals in journalism, and how these might affect the dozen journalism students seated at the table.

No matter how the news is paid for, Steiger said, reporters are still a news organization's most valuable resource.

The ProPublica team includes a 23-year-old reporter and a 62-year-old Pulitzer winner "and they learn in both directions." Summer internships in his shop pay $700/week, "which in New York is not a lot of money," Steiger said, "but we wanted to pay enough to get kids who aren't rich."

I could hear the synapses firing in those student brains; more than a few were running the math on those intern gigs. Finally a student asked whether if was better for aspiring journalists to train as generalists, or to develop a specialty.

Of course a journalist should be liberally educated, said Steiger, who holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Yale University. But specialization is good and reporters who know how to cover science are especially prized by editors, he declared.

Klibanoff concurred.

At this point Steiger became my very own American Idol. He had voiced two of my own cherished beliefs: journalism interns should be paid for their skills and time and covering science -- which for me includes rigorous reporting on medicine and health -- is a smart career choice.

I hung back when a swirl of well-wishers engulfed the speakers at the session's end. As soon as Steiger stood alone, I rushed over and was surprised to hear myself exclaim: "I could have kissed you when you said that specializing in science is a really good choice for young reporters."

"You can kiss me now," he said, offering his cheek without taking a beat.

And so I did.

(Thanks to Kathleen Raven for the phone of Paul Steiger.)

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