Williams Offers Wisdom to Young Scribes
Distinguished Speakers Series
By Jocelyn Jones
Journalist, commentator, author and political speaker Juan Williams advised aspiring communications students to continually work on their writing if they want to achieve success in all aspects of global media.
Williams' comments came during an exclusive interview with The Spectrum prior to his keynote address to close the inaugural season of the Distinguished Events Series launched in October 2009 by the Office of the Provost at Bowie State University. Williams spoke to more than 100 students, faculty, staff and administrators gathered for the event in the Special Collections Room of the Thurgood Marshall Library.
"To my mind there are so many changes going on in journalism right now because of economic problems, you can say economic issues, but I think they're problems where people don't know where the money is to pay us as journalists," Williams said, seated at a conference table in the library dean's conference room.
"So people are inventing new platforms," said Williams, a national journalist and political commentator for NPR and Fox News and a former Washington Post reporter. "You have to keep in mind what's going on the Internet [and other] electronic media. If you are writing I think you can apply any of those stories to any platform: radio, TV or newspaper, but it all starts with writing. You should be writing about anything you like (fashion, music etc.) create a blog that contributes to other blogs about that subject so people come to you as an expert and get to know you."
Many students do not know how important it is to earn a college degree and to gain hands-on experience, Williams said. It is tough in the real world and each day students must prepare themselves. It may not be easy, and there will be tough decisions and choices to make, but that is all part of growing up.
"School can help you find that path to get the experience, it also helps you open doors for internships," Williams said. "If you have to get up and go on your own it is good to follow your own path, but that's for someone who is fairly disciplined and knows what they want to do. Right now, things are in so much flux that it might help to have the structure of academic training and someone older as a teacher guiding you through the [process]."
It is clear that Williams' passion is writing. He was editor of his junior high school and high school newspapers while growing up in New York City. As a college freshman, he interned at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He was hired during his sophomore year to work at the paper two days a week, which was expanded to three days a week during the summer.
Williams landed a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund summer internship and was assigned to the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. That same summer, Williams was among two of the 20 Dow Jones interns hired by The Washington Post as one-year interns. But after six months on the job, Williams was hired full-time at the Post, where he stayed on for 23 years.
While many major metropolitan daily newspapers are no longer in existence or folding, Williams said the Post is still on top of its game. Like most big-city dailies, the Post is experiencing the financial challenges that come with declining readership and advertising revenue, however the paper essentially has a monopoly in a major market.
"It focuses more on local news and the people in this market," Williams said. "It's like a company paper. People have to read it on some level, especially if they work for the government. That is a huge advantage, this is a pretty big area, it's not one of the biggest, but we are in the top ten, about 3 million people live in the D.C. area. We're not as big as New York, L.A., or Houston."
The Post has made a conscious decision not to become a national newspaper, such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, which are national newspapers that can be found anywhere.
"Once you get out this are the Post is very hard to find," Williams said. "The result is that there is a real emphasis on local advertising and a promise to local advertisers that their ads will be seen by local eyes, who can buy their products. The big money makers for the Post these days is Kaplan testing, the people who prepare you for tests."
The industry is changing rapidly, and in order to get hired, aspiring communicators must write so that they can become experts in their chosen areas of interest, Williams advised. "Learn other languages. Spanish is a big plus on your résumé these days. Get experience, prove you can do it, and [get] some bylines. Show them that you have been doing journalism. It's a quantitative leap if people can see [that you can] do it."