Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Thoughts on David Halberstam

We mourn today the passing of David Halberstam, a writer who elevated meticulous reporting to inspirational heights.

I had the chance to meet David on Saturday, in Berkeley, where he was the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending on “Where History and Journalism Meet.” Earlier that day, I also had a chance to brush past Kevin Jones, the graduate student who was driving David to Menlo Park on Monday when another car broadsided his, instantly killing David.

At his lecture Saturday night, Halberstam shared with us that he’d just finished marking up the final galleys on his latest book, The Coldest Winter, his long-awaited book on the Korean War. The book was long in gestation. In fact, his newest publisher, Scribner, had first announced a 2002 publication date. Halberstam felt this latest book was his best — better than the 21 he’d written before — and better than his highly acclaimed first book, The Best and The Brightest.

He talked at length about how the two books were connected, and interlacing two of his graceful long fingers to demonstrate, he commented that The Longest Winter’s last chapter neatly dovetails with the first of The Best and The Brightest.

The nearly full house at Arthur Andersen Auditorium heard Halberstam offer advice to young journalist, which I quickly scribbled down to use in my “closing ceremony” speech on the last day of class for my capstone seniors.

He said his secret of success was to always work on your weaknesses. A stronger writer, he said he lacked the reporting skills of others (like Bill Kovach and John Siegenthaler) that he saw around him at the Nashville Tennessean. So he worked to overcome his shyness in making cold calls, learning the “legwork” of journalism. Most basketball players, he said, work on the best parts of their game during the off season. But he said that Michael Jordan, the subject of Halberstam’s 2000 book, Playing for Keeps, spent his summers working on weak points, which made Jordan transcend the game.

He also told students to write with authority, and to focus on the “why” as well as why things “do not happen.” He said the most important interview question was the last: “Who else should I see?”

In his years as a journalist, he feels newspapers have become daily magazines, with an ever-increasing need for analysis. He lauded the “pro-bono” spirit of today’s bright young journalists, who forgo higher paying careers to serve their faith in democracy. But he felt the monetary sacrifice was worth it, as journalists are given the spiritual gift to go to work to “learn every day, questioning every thing.”

But he was also saddened by the power that journalism has lost. Halberstam felt media today is weaker than when he was a NYTimes reporter more than 30 years ago. Mostly, he said, because of the loss of readership in the age of new media disruption. But also, after 9/11, media has lost its punch in a struggle not to appear patriotic. The fall of grace by once-esteemed reporter Judith Miller is “the worst wound in the life of the New York Times,” a wound far worse than the Jayson Blair scandal, he says.

As I left the lecture Saturday night, he put out his hand and introduced himself. I told him I taught at Missouri, and he responded, “Fine school.” I shared a quick story about a couple of our mutual acquaintances, and told him I’d use his words for my students.

And so I will share those word with my class, a last legacy of a great man who died too soon. Was he among the last of The Greatest Generation of Journalists? I hope not.

Marty Steffens

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Writing on the birth of Venture Capital

Berkeley, April 21—I’m here today on the campus of the University of California to attend a workshop on how journalists can write history.

One speaker is Spencer Ante of BusinessWeek, who’s writing a biography of Georges Doriot and the birth of the venture capital industry. Doriot is considered to be the father of the U.S. entrepreneurial economy, working mostly in the pivotal post-war era.

Born in France, Doriot came to the U.S. to get an MBA and extended his stay, working for an investment bank and teaching at Harvard Business School. A popular course was one on starting a business.
Over a 40-year teaching career, he would influence thousands of top students, including the founder of FedEx, Fred Smith.
His book will be published later this year by the Harvard Business School Press.

His tips for retelling major business events? Find photos, find correspondence, and don’t overlook libraries like presidential libraries and the Library of Congress that store original documents.
Also, go for tours of the homes in where they lived.

“Go to the places – absorb the light and ambience,” he says. He also got great help and wonderful stories from Doriot family.

What else did he find? That Doriot was an inventor himself, conducing experiments at home as a young student. He appreciated the imagination of others, and sought to fund them.
--Marty Steffens