Rather: ‘If we’d had spell check back then I’d still be in the newspaper business’

September 2, 2010
Category: Archive

Your reporting desire should burn “with a blue hot flame.” Know what you stand for. And find friends who understand your passion for the work. That’s the advice Dan Rather gave a group of investigative reporters at Poynter on Tuesday.

Al Tompkins interviewed longtime CBS News journalist Dan Rather Tuesday, Aug. 31 as part of a reporting workshop at The Poynter Institute. In the room were reporters participating in “Investigating Local Government on a Budget,” a Specialized Reporting Institute sponsored by The McCormick Foundation.

At the end of the 45-minute discussion, Tompkins asked Rather what advice he had for the group, having been a practicing journalist for 60 years. After urging the group not to give his words any undue weight, stressing he’s just “giving you an opinion,” Rather said:

“First thing, you really have to love it. The key to survival in journalism … you have to burn with a blue hot flame wanting to do it. You have to be at that point where it’s almost ‘I can’t imagine myself not doing this.’ “

When he was younger, Rather lost a newspaper job he really wanted because of his “remarkably poor” spelling.  (“If we’d had spell check back then I’d still be in the newspaper business.”) He stayed in journalism, though, because it is what he has always wanted to do and he knew, “I really have to do this.”

Second, Rather said, “you should know what you stand for.”

“There’ll be things happen and you’ll say, ‘Gosh, I don’t want to do that.’ You have to decide where the line is for you. I know, because I’ve been there. If you’re barely making your car payments and your house notes and you have a child… I know that reality, knowing I can’t afford to be looking for another job…”

“I know that it’s very easy for me who’s been so lucky and already been where I’m going to say to you that you have to know what you stand for and there has to be some line beyond which you will not go and you have to know where that is.”

Rather’s third tip: “It’s very hard in journalism to make it alone. I have known people who did it, but very, very few. And they tend to chase wars too often and too long and not be with us anymore.” Rather urged journalists to have an “electronic Rolodex.” “Your ability, your capacity, to survive in journalism is also in direct proportion to your ability to make friends in journalism, people who understand what you do and how you do it.”

“I’m not talking about professional leg-up contacts, they’re also important,” he said, but perhaps a friend or spouse who knows the profession. “Journalism can also be filled with great camaraderie…   You do need to have somebody who understands what it is, what it really is, as opposed to what it appears to be outside.”

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“I know that this is a tough work period. The job market is tough. You have a job, the pressure’s on, you’re asked to do what five people did, management gets away with things. I encourage you to be optimistic to this degree: If you really love it, if you really feel like you burn with that hot blue flame no matter how dim or dark things seem, you’ll find a way. I’m not saying you’ll become wealthy, get famous, get well known, but you will find a way to make a living at it.”

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