What Does Age Have to do With It?

Now that the flap over Boston University professor Chris
Daly’s blog
about The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr., 27, has disappeared
into blogging purgatory, or wherever blogs go when they are blogged out, let’s
visit again about this issue of age in the newsroom.

Why? Because it has always been one of my pet gripes about
our business. We have had a distinct tendency, or should I say stinking
tendency, to stamp red letters on journalists’ foreheads that read “Too Young” or “Too Old.” And too many
editors have uttered the words, “Come back when you have five years
experience,” as if that represents some kind of magical day when we shed our
not so talented skin and are miraculously converted into the next David Remnick
or Katherine Boo.

Thank goodness that one of my many mentors, Furman Bisher,
who in his late eighties still writes graceful columns for the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution
, didn’t adhere to that kind of warped thinking. It was a
half century ago and I was 22 years old with a couple of years of daily sports
department experience and a lot of days and nights spent on what had been my
family’s weekly.

Furman hired me and named me assistant sports editor of what
was the most aggressive and best sports staff in the South. Age was never
discussed. Performance expectations were. He gave me a chance, and I swore to
myself that I would always do the same for others. And I have never regretted
that decision.

Jim Fain, another wonderful mentor and then the editor of
the Dayton Daily News, treated me the same way. Assistant managing editor, then
managing editor in my early thirties. And then came my chance to be an editor
at the Palm Beach Post.

My first hire: A brilliant sub-editor from The Washington
Post
, David Lawrence, age 27, as managing editor. David went on to an amazing
newspaper career, eventually becoming publisher of the Detroit Free Press and
the Miami Herald. Together, we essentially hired a new staff at the Post,
including five right out of the University of Tennessee. The average age across the newsroom was 26.
The paper won a Pulitzer and dozens of other regional and national awards for
quality journalism.

Several years later, I found myself as editor of the Corpus
Christi Caller-Times
and again searching for a managing editor. And luck was my
date once again. There was a 26-year-old editor in Ypisilanti, Michigan, named
Tim McGuire, who brought a load of intelligence and talent with him to Texas, and
later would become editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Youngsters such as Peter Applebome, who now writes a column
for The New York Times, and Steve Blow, a columnist for the Dallas Morning
News
, joined us for this adventure.

And then my journey took me to Chicago and the Daily News
and the Sun-Times, and finally, the Sacramento Bee. And I never forgot that
lesson I learned from Furman all those long days ago.

How could anyone pass up a S.L. Price and a Damon Hack, both
now writing like the angels sing for Sports Illustrated, simply because they
were “too young” or lacked experience?
Or Diana Sugg, who later would win a Pulitzer at the Baltimore Sun? Or
Terry Kay and Pete Dexter, who would go on to write critically-acclaimed
novels? Or so many others?

Or how could anyone question the wisdom of my boss in
Chicago, Jim Hoge, for naming Roger Ebert the Sun-Times’ movie critic when he was in his early
twenties, or making Bob Greene and Roger Simon columnists when they were not
much older?

How young is too young? How old is too old? Two of the
finest journalists I had the honor to work with, M.W. Newman in Chicago and
Bill Glackin in Sacramento, continued to commit superb journalism well beyond
retirement age. And Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet thrilled Chicago readers decade
after decade.

Professor Daly said later that he really wasn’t raising the
age question. After all, he does teach women and men younger than Perry Bacon,
and I am sure some have hopes and dreams of one day having a front page byline
in a major newspaper or in the New Yorker or covering a campaign for a network.

I
grant him his clarification, but I am extremely grateful that 50 years ago
Furman didn’t share his mindset. And I hope that most of today’s editors
won’t…if, by the grace of Wall Street, they have the opportunity to hire
anyone.

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