Getting to the bottom of the story with alumni in journalism

 

For decades at Hamdpen-Sydney College, writing has been the focus of the learning process. If our students can clearly explain in written form the ideas discussed in class and in readings, we believe they understand these ideas. If they can persuasively construct written arguments, we believe they have considered multiple perspectives to find truth.

Student writing at the College is not limited to English class and the social sciences; our students write extensively in classes such as chemistry, physics, and computer science, too.

As students transition into their careers, they use their writing skills to varying degrees. An insurance salesman may not write during the workday as much as an attorney. A veteranarian might write much more than we expect. Some Hampden-Sydney alumni, because of their experience writing and their comfort with composition, become the de facto writers of their organization. We can say without a shadow of a doubt, though, that some Hampden-Sydney graduates love writing and are putting their education to great use. Among them are journalists, including Walter Miller '72, a writer/producer at CNN; Matthew Karnitschnig '94, Germany Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal; and Matthew Philips '07, an associate editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Though they may work in different forms of media, live in different countries, or cover different topics, their work is remarkably similar. They all use their writing skills all day, every day.

All three of these alumni began their journalism careers at a local newspaper. Miller had just fi nished his master's degree in history and needed a break from academia. He took a job at his hometown newspaper and worked there for a year and a half before realizing that he really wanted to go overseas.

"I wanted to go to New Zealand, but, because of visa restrictions, I ended up going to Hong Kong where my sister and her husband were living. After soliciting every English-language newspaper and international wire service in the city, I had nearly worn out my welcome."

Finally his luck came through. Someone had quit at United Press International's wire service office and Miller was offered the job. For the next five years, he was an editor and correspondent, reporting around the region. He spent three months in Pakistan and traveled into Afghanistan with the mujahidin. Following a stint in India, Miller and his fiancé spent five months "traveling on the cheap around India and China. In the mid-1980s, they moved to Japan, where he spent five years as the Asia reporter for Cox Newspapers.

Walter Miller

Walter Miller ’72 transitioned from newspapers to television in the early 1980s and writing continues to be a crucial part of his work.

Miller and his wife decided it was time to move back to the United States, so in 1989 he shifted gears, left the newspaper business, and turned to television with a job as a writer/producer for CNN. At this time, CNN was the only 24-hour cable news network and it was less than 10 years old. In 1986, it was the only network with live coverage of the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger, but it would not be until the first Persian Gulf War that the network would reach viewers around the world and demonstrate its ability to provide continuous coverage of breaking news.

As Miller says, "A lot has changed about the job since then."

Now, he is a member of the team that produces the 11:00 am show hosted by Ashleigh Banfield. Every day, he researches and writes at least one segment for the program. He writes the anchor's script and talks with any non-CNN guests in preparation for their appearance on the show. For his segment, he also compiles appropriate video, sound, and graphics. Unlike during the late 1980s, research is done primarily online, producers use social media to make contacts and attract viewers, even the anchor works hundreds of miles away from the production crew.

"The host is based in New York, but we are in Atlanta. Every morning we have a conference call to discuss the stories of the day and to work out the show. Though each show has a fair amount of flexibility, what we cover is somewhat dictated by the news on earlier shows and-of course-breaking news can result in all of your plans going out the window. Having your segment get bumped can be frustrating, but it's just part of the business."

When he is writing his segments, Miller has to keep in mind that he is writing for both an external audience and for the anchor. While the story must be clear and factual, it must also be written in a way that the anchor is comfortable reading.

"We are always told to write in the voice of the anchor. Those are nebulous instructions. When you sit down to write a script, you try to make it familiar and easy to read. Ashleigh Banfield has a very conversational delivery, so I have to take that into account. Every anchor has words and phrases he or she doesn't like. They all have preferences. It's an ongoing battle that adds even more pressure to the job. I've seen writers taken off a show or even shown the door because they can't adapt their style."

The pace is quick. The deadline is firm. Every day is a new story going in a new direction. Miller says, "I enjoy the challenge. When it's over at the end of the day, which can be very intense, sometimes you are so drained you just want to find a place to go to sleep. You feel so exhausted from the focus you are putting on your work and from being under deadline. A lot is expected of you. It's unrealistic to say, but you just can't make mistakes."

Looming deadlines and the need for perfection are recurring themes in the world of journalism. As an associate editor specializing in oil and natural gas news for Bloomberg Businessweek, Matthew Philips works hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of the industry.

"I work in the front of the magazine," says Philips, "mostly in the global econ and markets and finance sections, editing, reporting, writing. We take a good part of the reporting and stories that are done by Bloomberg News, which has about 2,000 reporters around the world; it's a real nice asset to have in this day and age when places are shrinking. They tend to write for a finance audience, so we repackage that information for a general audience. I also write a lot about energy and a lot about natural gas. It's a good mix."

With the growing demand for web-based journalism, Philips writes two or three web stories for every print story. "I do tend to write daily for Businessweek.com."

Philips works with his editors to determine which stories to pursue and he has a signifi cant influence in what he covers, particularly now that he has established himself in the energy market. His knowledge of the subject matter and access to sources is important to his success. He says, "On a daily basis, I try to talk to an economist or an analyst. I do a lot of research, which is important in this industry. Trained economists are more often pointing things out than most people would themselves, so it's crucial for me to be in touch with them."

He says, "The economy is the story here and in China, as well as Europe. Whether we are writing about the fiscal cliff or consumer and business trends, there is plenty to write about."

Economics was not his major in college, so he has had a lot of on-the-job training. However, he also spent a year at Columbia Business School in New York on a fellowship. "I was a history major at Hampden-Sydney and I took only one economics class. I think it was Money & Banking with Dr. [Kenneth] Townsend."

Matthew Philips"When I first started out, I was a generalist at Newsweek for the bulk of my time there. I think that helped me out because in the world of magazines it boils down to clean copy, a nice narrative with a compelling story, and an understanding of the details. The most important skills transfer across topics. A lot of the things we pick up are very jargon heavy and in many cases it is up to us to 'unpack' it. You have to have a general audience in the back of your mind all the time. Whether you are writing about companies or banks or economies, the skill sets go across all subjects."

When he graduated from Hampden-Sydney, Philips (at right) took the advice of Professor Susan Robbins and went to work for a local daily in Virginia. "Totally by my good fortune, I coldcalled the Goochland Gazette and they were looking for an editor. I was 22 and the extent of my experience was working on the college newspaper. They took a chance on me and for two years I ran the newspaper. I was writing, editing, doing the layout, taking photos. The experience showed me exactly what is involved in putting together a newspaper."

From there he went to Virginia Lawyers Weekly and then to Richmond.com where his goal was "to always scoop The Richmond Times-Dispatch." In 2005 he applied to Columbia University's journalism school; he saw it as a way to learn about the profession and to get to New York City. He landed an internship at Newsweek, which recently announced it would end its print version and appear only online, and was hired after that. He worked at the weekly magazine for five years, went to Freakonomics.com for a year, and has now been at Bloomberg Businessweek for a year.

Philips sees his job as more than being a simple messenger. He is putting news into context and explaining why it is important. "I can report on the monthly jobless claims just as well as anybody but the trick is explaining why it matters, what is interesting about this month versus last month, and being able to extrapolate and explain what's going on. With economics reporting you are trying to wrap your head around things like 'why are consumers buying while at the same time businesses are cutting back,' 'why is the economy so schizophrenic right now?' Those questions to me are very interesting."

Hampden-Sydney College really prepared Philips for his chosen career, and not just because he worked for the student newspaper. He says the emphasis on writing and analysis developed skills that he uses every day.

"I sometimes miss those history classes with Dr. [James] Simms and Dr. [Ronald] Heinemann; I learned a lot. Those were classes where I learned to take in a volume of information, analyze it, form an opinion about it, and write about it. Learning to do that over and over for papers at Hampden-Sydney has served my career for certain."

When he first graduated from college, Philips admits that he felt like an anomaly among his friends, most of whom were in finance or law. He says, "Maybe I was a little naïve to think that I could have a career doing what I love, that I could make it work and that writing was not just something to do in my spare time. I really am fortunate that I get paid to do what motivates me.

There was a brief time, while he was in business school that he thought he might want to change careers, but he quickly realized that was not the case. "There I was learning about debt and equity and that kind of stuff and I'm thinking how I could have written a story differently if I had known that sooner. I was catching myself translating this information into how I can use it as a journalist. That's when I said, 'You are what you are.'" Philips was clearly a journalist for good.

Realizing a commitment to a career in journalism came a little sooner for Matthew Karnitschnig. He studied abroad during his junior year and held an internship at ABC News in London, primarily with the radio division. There he learned to write quickly and concisely. The following summer, he had another journalism internship at his home in Arizona. He was not completely certain what to do with his life after graduating from Hampden-Sydney in 1994, so he returned to Europe to study at the University of Vienna to "fi gure out what to do with the rest of my life." It was then that he decided to go to journalism school, like Philips, at Columbia.

"This was before the Internet had taken off, and I had a lot of old school professors like Ray Cave (who worked for decades at Sports Illustrated and Time), who was a wonderful mentor for me. He had also gone to a small, liberal arts school and he advised me to go back to the South and work in a small daily newspaper to really learn the trade, and that's what I did."

Though many of his classmates stayed in New York, Karnitschnig set out to get his feet wet elsewhere. He worked for about nine months in Kinston, North Carolina, where he covered the "classic cub reporter beat" of courts and police. He also covered a hurricane that gave him additional exposure and a major story.

"After almost a year, I got a call from someone at Columbia, which is one reason that going to Columbia became quite useful, about an opening with an American news agency in Germany—Bloomberg—and because I spoke German they wondered if I would be interested in applying. I did and I decided to do it."

Matthew Karnitschnig

Mathew Karnitschnig '94 (left), the Germany Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal makes a rare appearance on screen to explain the significance of the French election to the European economy.

He moved to Frankfurt for his introduction to overseas reporting and to covering economics. For Bloomberg News' wire service, Karnitschnig covered Germany's economy for a professional audience. After a couple of years, he left Bloomberg to lead a team of reporters at Reuters covering corporations in Germany. Another couple of years later, he began writing for Businessweek in Germany. The Wall Street Journal came calling a year later, courting Karnitschnig to write for them in Vienna. He has been with the Journal ever since, spending some time in New York, first covering major media companies and then mergers and acquisitions during the financial collapse of 2008. "That was a very stressful period. That beat is a sink or swim scenario. If you do well, you can be very successful. If you screw it up, it can be very bad for your career."

Karnitschnig is now the Germany bureau chief in Berlin, overseeing the paper's coverage of all things Germany, such as politics, the automotive industry, and the economy. The office is also responsible for covering the European Central Bank, so his office has been key in covering the European debt crisis. "Because I am the economics editor, that is what I focus most of my time on: Greece and Spain and the future of the Euro, what this crisis means for Europe going forward."

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal has overtaken USA Today as the most widely read paper in the United States, and it has a significant global footprint. "It is an American paper and it is read by business elites around the world. Most of the stories we write are written to be accessible to a lay reader but also relevant to a professional reader. Because we cover such a broad spectrum of subjects-there are people in the U.S. who are interested in European politics; there might be people in China who are also interested in what's going on in German politics right now-so we try to write in a way that people-no matter where they are-can understand what is going on and what is important. The goal of the paper, I think, is to be a primer for people in important positions around the world about what's going on in the global economy at any given time."

Karnitschnig agrees with Miller and Philips that a liberal arts education is perfect for someone in journalism. He says, "If you have that kind of background, as opposed to a narrow focus, it enables you to jump into subjects that you might not have spent years studying but to capture the essence of what's going on, to understand complex issues, and then to be able to explain them to other people. That's essentially what we're doing."

He also says that a journalist also needs unflappable integrity: "You run into a lot of gray areas in this line of work and you need to be able to deal with those. This is a profession where your reputation for integrity is absolutely crucial. Once you lose that, you may as well quit."

"The emphasis on writing," says Karnitschnig of his Hampden-Sydney experience, "was probably the best preparation I had for doing this type of work. I had Professor [Mary] Saunders, who was instrumental in so many ways, and Professor [Lawrence] Martin was too. Going to Hampden-Sydney was a decision that influenced the rest of my career."

As the leader of the Germany bureau, Karnitschnig spends much of his time behind the scenes. He shies away from social media and commentating on news events. He says, "I am the person a lot of people don't see because I oversee a lot of reporters. I drive the coverage. I help people come up with ideas about what we are going to cover and how we are going to cover it and I edit the stories that are going in the paper. Every now and again I will appear on TV to talk about what's going, but really it's not about me."

For each of these men, being a reporter is not about them, it is about finding the news, deciphering the news, and writing the news. However, this doesn't mean their work goes unnoticed. Karnitschnig, for one, was part of a reporting team that was a finalist for the 2012 Gerald Loeb Award, which is given annually for excellence in financial and business reporting. Miller's work at CNN as led to numerous Peabody Awards, a DuPont-Columbia Award, and an Emmy Award.

While these men-and many other Hampden-Sydney alumni working as journalists-are getting the most out of the composition-based curriculum at the College, we all understand the value of what we learned on The Hill. Whether we spent all of our time in Gilmer Hall labs or in economics classes in Morton, we value the positive influence that learning to write well has had on our lives.