You might think that, just out of college or having worked a non-journalism job for years, you have nothing to offer a newspaper as a reporter, but let me correct you on that. You might have no experience. You not even have any talent. But anybody, no matter how inexperienced and/or talentless, can summon a quality that editors like to see in reporters: relentlessness.
True story: I started my journalism career at the phytoplankton of newspapers — Energy User News, a weekly paper for commercial and industrial energy managers. Lower than this on the journalism prestige ladder it was not possible to go. I spent my days researching and writing about fluidized bed combustion boilers, high-efficiency heating-ventilation-and-airconditioning (HVAC) systems, and the like. I was earning $9,500 a year; even in 1981, a four-digit salary in New York City was comically low.
Newspapers occasionally ran help-wanted ads in the classifieds at the back of Editor and Publisher, the magazine of the newspaper industry,* and scouring those pages of fine print was a weekly ritual of mine. There, at the top of page 41 was this:
The Asian Wall Street Journal is always eager to hear from good reporters willing to relocate to Asia. Write to Mike Malloy, managing editor…. An address in Hong Kong followed.
I almost took an infarction. Gold strike! Hong Kong! The Wall Street Journal‘s farm team! I’d recently finished John LeCarré’s The Honorable Schoolboy — my favorite of his many books — and my mind was full of southeast Asian intrigue. But even to think of going from a nothingburger of a paper like Energy User News to a Wall Street Journal paper was an act of almost criminal hubris. The path to the Journal led through small-town weeklies, perhaps, then to such a daily as, say, the Louisville Courier or the Anniston (Alabama) Star. But who knew? Maybe one day all of the Asian Wall Street Journal’s reporters would die in a cholera outbreak or a bus plunge, and they’d need hands. I dashed off a cover letter, calling Energy User News, “the premier monitor of the volatile energy markets,” gathered a few recent “clips” (stories of mine clipped from the paper) and moseyed into the supply closet to steal an envelope. The first one I laid my hand on was red, and luckily, I used that one.
*Can you imagine anything with a more pungent whiff of death than a magazine about the newspaper industry?