This is my 12th year on the Elon faculty, following a semester as Visiting Professor of Journalism at Indiana University-Bloomington. Before I began teaching, I spent 22 years in daily journalism, working for the Winston-Salem Journal, The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I've been a political reporter and statehouse bureau chief, an editorial writer, a book critic and book-page editor, a general interest columnist and a feature writer. I've also written for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The New Republic and Fortune, among other publications. At one time or another, I've covered U.S. Senate races, reported from Central America, filed stories on deadline in the midst of hurricanes, witnessed a prison outbreak, interviewed members of the North Carolina Nazi Party and written about children with terminal illness.
I have served on eight Pulitzer Prize juries, chairing three, and have won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, an American Society of Newspaper Editors Award for Distinguished Commentary, a Duke University Award for Coverage of Higher Education and a James Beard Foundation Award -- among others.
I am a native of Springfield, Ill., and grew up wanting nothing more from life than to write for newspapers. I began covering local sports for The Illinois State Journal-Register, a capital city daily with a circulation of 60,000 at the time, when I was a sophomore in high school, and to this day no experience in journalism has made me happier than seeing my byline in print for the first time. I was 15. During my first two years of college I worked full-time for the Journal-Register.
Somehow, though, I became intoxicated while college with political theory and intellectual history, and put the seemingly trivial concerns of journalism in the corner of my mind. Not until I was 34 years old did I return to newspapers -- after being turned down by papers big and small, good and bad, over a period of four years. What's more, I took a 40 percent pay cut to do so. I think about this often when I talk to students anxious about their prospects and uncertain of their direction. I've been there, I say, and I tell them that soon enough they will come to know, as I did, who they are and what they're about.
As lucky as I've been, people are often mistaken in assuming that what gave me the deepest satisfaction in journalism was winning a prize of some note. It was nice, but something else has meant more. That was knowing I proved myself pretty good in almost every form of print or online journalism there is -- political reporting, feature writing, commentary and columns. Not that I was ever the best. Few people realize how different one form is from another, or how strongly the instincts necessary for political reporting, say, work against the storyteller's impulse to paint word pictures -- to make the words sing.
In my late middle age, I derive an unexpected satisfaction from showing young people how to make their own words sing.