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Salon: Passing the Torch; Beth Knobel '84

When Emmy Award-winning journalist Beth Knobel set out to become a cub reporter, she applied at every media outlet she possibly could, in New York City and elsewhere. “And I got so many rejection letters, they not only covered the outside of my dorm room door, but the inside as well,” Knobel says.

Eventually she landed her first job at Ladies Home Journal; somewhat later she advanced to Moscow bureau chief for CBS News. Along the way, there were a few calculated risks, she says, including falling in love with and marrying a Russian journalist and moving to Moscow.

These days, carving out a successful journalism career isn’t any easier for aspiring young wordsmiths. With the Internet sending the titans of the media into a tailspin, reports of layoffs and cutbacks, particularly in the print world, have become so common they aren’t really news at all.

But Knobel hasn’t lost her optimism and hope. The Internet may have turned the media world upside down, but it’s creating even more opportunities for young journalists just starting out in the profession. That’s why it’s more critical than ever to help them acquire the skills they need to create the kind of journalism that still makes a difference and helps the professional survive and adapt in a new world.

“The only way journalism will stay relevant is if people create high-quality, meaningful journalism,” Knobel asserts. And to help young people do that, she has coauthored a handbook with CBS News legend Mike Wallace titled Heat & Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists. “It’s really a guide book that someone can keep with them when they’re out working, and if they have questions, they can give the book a little glance to remind themselves.”

The idea for the book was born in 2007, when Wallace stopped by to talk to Knobel’s journalism classes at Fordham University. For Wallace, good journalism is a delicate balance between what he calls heat and light. Heat is a story’s emotional pull, the drama and conflicts that pull a reader in. Light is information, the knowledge that a well-reported story offers readers.

Knobel and her students were so intrigued by his advice, she called Wallace and told him he should write a book about the subject. “I told him you have some things to pass along,” she explains. “And much to my delight, he said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”

“More than anything, journalism is complicated, and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well, and to feel empowered,” Knobel says.    

They began meeting about once a week to debate and discuss the craft of journalism. Knobel made a list of about 150 questions her students typically ask about the profession. And they talked to dozens of journalists (reporters, editors, and writers) who were either friends or colleagues whose work they admired. “We wanted to get some different perspectives to see if other people agreed with us or had other important things to add,”

Knobel says. “So I think between my understanding of the academic side, and Mike’s incredible wealth of knowledge, we turned out something that’s useful.”

With practical tips and anecdotes, the book strikes a balance between the theoretical and the practical. It tackles big-picture questions such as fairness, responsibility, objectivity, and balance. It also outlines the specific writing and reporting skills all young wannabes have to learn to succeed. Consideration is also given to how a journalist can generate and evaluate story ideas, in addition to offering tips on how to master the art of the interview, by learning how to create a rapport with someone while still asking the tough questions. It also outlines the tools that novices need to know to produce and edit news for television, radio, or the Internet. “More than anything, journalism is complicated, and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well, and to feel empowered,” Knobel says.

The book hasn’t been out long, but changes in the news business are happening so rapidly that she is already considering how to update it. New media products that didn’t exist two years ago when they started writing the book, such as news applications for smart phones or digital newspapers for the iPad, are altering the landscape of journalism. “And that’s something we certainly should address....” Knobel says.

- Amy Miller
Photograph by Jonathan Sanders