TABLOID NEWS SERVICES, INC.
Sorry Buddy: No Sheepskin, No Job
MATT WELCH reports from LOS ANGELES
[July 13, 1998] -- What do I, an obscure free-lancer, have in common with the exalted likes of Carl Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, Pete Hamill, Mike Royko, Hunter S. Thompson, Nina Totenberg and Ken Layne?
We are, all of us, ineligible to work for Investor's Business Daily, the nation's 49th largest newspaper. Why? Because none of us has a college degree.
"I'm sorry," explained the IBD's Mike Krey when breaking the news to me. "I didn't realize the guidelines were so strict."
This was the third time Mike and I had talked on the phone about a job on the computer/tech desk of the Wall Street Journal's main competitor. The first two times went very well, and he was further encouraged by my previous employers' recommendations, such as "there could be no better candidate for your job."
The next step was supposed to be a trial article and perhaps a quick test at the paper's Los Angeles headquarters. But the home office had its standards -- none of the 40-odd editorial staff is without a degree -- and my candidacy was snuffed.
"I was surprised to learn of that policy, and in complete disagreement," Krey wrote to my former editor. "I, too, thought we had a winner."
These are hard words to read when you can't afford to buy health insurance for your wife. Harder still if you hold onto the belief, despite all evidence, that newspapers are ugly and noble collections of diverse, flawed humans whose only shared characteristic is the desire to put out a good paper.
Ironically, I had originally been attracted to Investor's Business Daily because of its spirited help-wanted ads in the trades, seeking candidates who "go against the grain" or "think outside of the box" or whatever.
Pardon me for stating the obvious, but what in living hell does sitting in classes between the ages of 18 and 22 have the slightest fucking bit to do with "going against the grain?" Or maybe the argument is that William Randolph Hearst would have really made something of himself if he had only stuck it out at Harvard. Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Robert Capa, Theodore Dreiser, Ted Turner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Edward Albee ... they all managed a little of the old "outside the box" without benefit of a four-year education.
Investor's Business Daily (whose motto is "For People Who Choose to Succeed") in fact spills much of its ink covering the doings of dropouts -- Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, David Geffen. Its editorial page is a living homage to Barry Goldwater (dropout), and echoes the saner sentiments of Rush "dropout" Limbaugh.
You could easily throw together a list of cretins and heroes with or without a bachelor's or master's degree, depending on your politics. It's a pointless exercise, proving only the uselessness of making a hard rule.
As well, there is no honor in getting ejected from a university for bad grades, even if (as in my case) you spend the bulk of those four years instead working for a pretty good college daily. It's just another wild thing that happened at age 18, like getting laid for the first time, or discovering the Replacements. Certainly it shouldn't be as relevant as the work done in the ensuing 11 years.
Yet since recently returning to America after eight years away, this silly little episode I barely remember keeps coming up. At an interview with the Times Community News (the L.A. Times-owned company that publishes little community papers on the fresh bones of local dailies like the Santa Monica Outlook), I had to spend 10 minutes explaining "what happened," and why I never did (and never will) "go back and get a degree."
Pretty strenuous stuff for a company that pays full-time reporters as little as $425 a week to write crap. But then it turned out that my interlocutor, a former Outlook editor named Skip Rimer who was hired by the Times to staff the Outlook's replacement, earned his degree from my same damned school, UC Santa Barbara. As anyone who has spent a day on that baked campus can tell you, a degree from there does not, shall we say, accurately predict future accomplishment. The world of professional journalism, in comparison, is sprinkled liberally with the various castoffs who plunged their lives into UCSB's Daily Nexus -- many without bothering to graduate.
Some of those old college pals who now work for L.A. papers tell me I should just, you know, put "Education: Santa Barbara" on the resume and leave the details vague. Though they are just trying to be helpful, I can't help thinking that I didn't get into this racket so I could tell petty half-truths to my potential bosses (let alone submit to insulting urine tests). That was supposed to be what they did over at IBM, or GE, or wherever those other people worked.
Luckily, there is only so much time I'm willing to waste banging my head against dead trees. I've heard some outrageous things the last few months from the mouths of newspaper people.
("You're obviously smart," Rimer said, without irony, "But I just don't know how you'll fit in here." Or, at the L.A. Times proper: "To be honest, you don't exactly fit into our little boxes.")
It doesn't take too much of that talk to persuade me, with enormous sadness, that my love for newspapering will likely go unrequited while I'm still in this country. What stupid irony, that the vast majority of people who seem to understand what I'm talking about are print journalists who have turned to the Internet in disgust. With them I know I won't have to hear another insane rant about all the non-negotiable seven years worth of specific qualifications it takes to be, say, the foreign wire editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.
I know a little about hiring biases, having been terribly biased while hiring people for much of the past 11 years. At the last newspaper job I had, as managing editor of the Budapest Business Journal, I had a thing -- quite reasonably, I think -- against people with Journalism school degrees, people over 35, people who had never lived abroad, people from Ivy League schools, people with no relevant experience, and people with spouses. I'm sure that would all be illegal in the States, but that's one of the many joys of not living here.
My last major hire there was my replacement. And sure enough, the winner turned out to be a married guy who had never really edited nor lived abroad. He worked for the kind of paper that I am currently unqualified for, and he had also just picked up a master's degree from a prestigious school. If any of my biases had been etched into the same kind of binding codes that thwart me now, his resume would have been thrown in the trash.
Matt Welch was a founding editor of Prague's first English-language newspaper, Prognosis, a correspondent for myriad wire services and European papers, and managing editor of the Budapest Business Journal. He currently writes for the Online Journalism Review and TABLOID, and is seriously over deadline with the introduction to Fodor's new Central Europe book. Mr. Welch has not been graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
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