Columnist and blogger Dick Polman first came to Penn in 1999, auditing classes through a one-semester fellowship.
He was immediately hooked.
“I loved the atmosphere over here,” he says. “And the trees. If nothing else, there were trees and lawns and coffee shops and smart people.”
The fellowship beget a part-time teaching gig, instructing one course a year, which then beget a full-time position.
Now, after more than three decades in the newspaper business under his belt, Polman is a full-time faculty member at Penn. The journalist-turned-blogger spent 22 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer in a variety of different roles, the last 15 as its national political writer covering presidential elections and House and Senate races. Since February 2006, he has been writer and editor of his own blog, American Debate, on philly.com.
Prior to his Inquirer days, Polman was a metro columnist at Connecticut’s Hartford Courant and founding editor of the alternative Hartford Advocate.
It’s no secret that newspapers are in a beleaguered state—which is one factor in Polman’s partial exit from the industry—but a gift unearthed at Penn played a role too. Through his teaching, Polman discovered that he has a talent for conveying his affection for writing. “I thought writing was the only thing I knew how to do, but I found I was also good at talking about writing or communicating my love of writing,” he says.
He currently serves as the Maury Povich “writer in residence” and a full-time faculty member in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, while also working part-time at the Inquirer.
The Current recently caught up with Polman to get the inside scoop on his writing career, his advice for aspiring journalists and the future of the struggling newspaper industry.
Q. You were managing editor of your college newspaper at George Washington University. Did you have an interest in journalism before you entered college?
A. I was always interested in politics and public affairs when I was in high school. I was in high school in the ‘60s and the ‘60s were an incredibly powerful period of time in terms of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement. I must have had an instinctive interest anyway in following the news but certainly the nature of the news ratcheted up my curiosity. And I was always writing stuff. Maybe it was for myself or it was for English class, so I knew I had some kind of writing facility. I tried to join my high school paper and I got turned down so I didn’t have that outlet, which kind of amuses me now in retrospect. I chose George Washington University in part because it was at the center of things, politics and government. I grew up in western Massachusetts but instinctively I somehow wanted to be in Washington. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I joined the student paper and I just got hooked on writing and journalism and spent every spare moment on my college paper, kind of just learning on the fly, writing a lot of stories that were actually pretty close to national events because this was during the time when there were major national anti-war protests in Washington. A lot of my earliest stories were covering giant anti-war demonstrations and fights with police in the street, but always as an observer. I was always more comfortable as an observer, which I guess is partly what journalists do. The Watergate scandal began to unfold when I was a junior and senior, so I was following that very closely. All those developments kind of reinforced my instinctive desire to try to make that my career.
Q. Was there a journalist or writer you read growing up who inspired you to become a writer?
A. There were a number of people. The first one was a guy named Theodore H. White. He wrote a series of books on presidential elections. The very first one he wrote was called “The Making of the President, 1960” when Kennedy won. It was the first time that any journalist had actually taken a presidential election and written it in almost like this epic, novelistic, unfolding storytelling. It was a breakthrough book at the time and it really got a hold of my imagination. It sort of gave you this great inside sense of what people were like in politics and what the political stakes were for the nation. It was almost a kind of romantic look at elections without the common cynicism we all have about politics today. [Another person who inspired me]—this is someone who a lot of students know today because I bring him up in class—was Hunter Thompson. It’s amazing because in some ways when I read Hunter Thompson’s political writings now, it almost feels like he was the first blogger because he was writing very sort of impressionistic stuff, very colorful stuff, a lot of attitude, a lot of kind of wise-ass observations and he was humorous. The tone he took, that was a real breakthrough at the time.
Q. You have been a columnist, blogger, foreign correspondent, sports writer, general assignment feature writer and Sunday magazine feature writer. Is there a certain format that you enjoy the most?
A. They all have their advantages, I suppose. One of my favorites—which I’m not doing very much anymore because I’m teaching and I don’t have the time—is the long-form magazine article writing. You spend weeks and weeks on something and you paint on a very broad canvas and the editing process is usually very arduous. You go over it with editors line by line and it should be a precise and exacting process. I really liked that when I was at the Sunday magazine at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which no longer exists, unfortunately. [For one story], I went down to CNN. This was during the Gulf War in 1991 and CNN sort of came into their own that year and I spent two or three days hanging out on the CNN set in Atlanta. [The article] took a long time to put together. Another was an article I did on aging Jewish comedians in upstate New York in the Catskills, where they used to perform. I did different kinds of things, hard news, soft features. I liked doing that. I liked taking weeks and weeks on something and really digging into it and writing it and rewriting it. What I got out of that more than anything else is that good writing is rewriting. When you’re working on a magazine story, that’s when you really see it. You just keep going over it and over it and over it. I had this great editor and she used to say, ‘It’s never done ‘till it’s in the magazine,’ until it’s actually published. That got me over my impatience with being finished. So I really like that format.
Q. Are there any other formats that you really enjoy?
A. I have to say, I really like writing on the blog. Obviously, anybody who blogs regularly—and I’m not just talking about people who put up things like here’s my kitty cat, here’s what’s in my refrigerator today, but people who really try to do substantive journalism online—anybody will tell you that a blog, if you do it well, it’s very, very hard work. I tell the students in the class I have on commentary writing—because we have a class blog—I tell them on the very first day that it’s not enough to just put a rant online and just start spouting out an opinion. That’s easy but that’s not what draws you an audience. What draws you a good audience and keeps them coming back is how you argue your point of view. You need to do the reporting and the research and then you’ve got to write it well. So all those factors come into play, that’s how you build credibility as a writer. Those are my goals everyday and it’s very demanding and it takes many, many hours to do it. And because I don’t have an editor—when you’re blogging, you basically don’t have an editor, it’s self-publishing—what that means is that you’ve got to take even more responsibility to police yourself, which is very, very difficult. I’m glad I was in the business for 33 years before I started a blog because I have a lot of experience and I have confidence. Since I’ve made politics my specialty, particularly in the last 15 years or so, I have the confidence in thinking up good ideas and trying to write them well and argue them well and policing myself. Those are the reasons I like doing it. I know I have an audience and they keep coming back every day. Even though a lot of them keep posting comments and a lot of them seem to hate everything I write, they keep reading it.
Q. Journalists such as yourself, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd have succeeded in journalism with only a bachelor’s degree. Others go on to obtain master’s and doctorate’s in journalism. Do you think an advanced degree in journalism is necessary or are aspiring journalists better off learning through actual reporting?
A. Some of my students, when they’re getting close to graduation, we’ll have a cup of coffee and they ask me questions like that and I always preface my answer by saying that they could probably go to somebody else and get a completely different answer. Just like the doctor, you need a second opinion. My opinion is that it’s better to get practical experience. It’s better to get into the field in a practical way as soon as possible. I don’t necessarily think advanced degrees help because you’re just delaying getting into the marketplace and the marketplace is changing so rapidly that it just seems to me that, all things being equal, it’d be better to dive into it and just get your arms around it, master it, get some bylines, get some stories, whether it’s online or in print. My experience has been that editors, employers, they’re practical people and they want to see concrete work. If you go to someone and say, ‘I have an advanced journalism degree from the University of Such and Such,’ I don’t necessarily think that’s as valuable as coming in and saying, ‘Here are 10 articles that I’ve written that I’ve had bylines on, on subjects that you, the editor, would be interested in.’ More valuable to me, I think, for an undergraduate who’s interested in journalism and writing and taking courses in journalism and writing, is to, while they’re [taking courses], they’re also looking for and getting internships at newspapers and magazines and doing that kind of work while they’re still in school. I’ve had a number of students who have taken that route. They’ve gotten internships at the Inquirer. A lot of places have internship programs, in part because they’re also looking for cheap labor right now. A couple of [students] have worked with the Associated Press, the Financial Times, USA Today, Philadelphia Magazine, Citypaper, Philadelphia Weekly. I just think that’s more valuable than going to grad school and not doing the practical work. Obviously, there are some graduate schools, Columbia University School of Journalism, for example, which are terrific places from everything I hear. I suppose if you can get into one of the very, very best of those schools—particularly Columbia because it’s in New York—then maybe you can make the argument that you’re going to get terrific connections, you’re going to meet a lot of people, you’re going to be able to do some networking so that by the time you get out, you can maybe catch up with the rest of the field that are already out there doing it. But it just seems to me that unless you go to one of the very, very best schools, it’s just better to get practical experience.
Q. You received your bachelor’s in public affairs, which focused on politics and policy. Would you advise aspiring journalists to major in journalism or another field, such as history or English?
A. At Penn, there is no journalism major so that’s not even a consideration here. But there’s a lot of ways you can become a writer and part of it has to do with writing about what most interests you, what most drives you, what most fascinates you, and there’s many different specialties for that. I had a student last year who writes for the Daily Pennsylvanian. She’s a good writer but she’s really interested in health policy so she’s taking a lot of courses that have to do with healthcare and health policy. She wants to be a health writer so what she’s doing is she can’t be a journalism major but she’s getting practical experience through the student paper, and she’s taking courses in the specialty she’s interested in. So if you’re interested in politics—political writing, government writing—then naturally you should be taking political science courses and history courses and apply that to the writing skills that you presumably can work on, and you work on those by taking writing classes.
Q. The newspaper industry has seen better days economically. What advice do you give to students who want to enter the print journalism industry?
A. It’s never been as bad as it is now. There was a story in The New York Times [recently] about a newspaper in Seattle that could go out of business in 60 days. Things are at a really, really critical point. You’ve got major newspaper corporations [that have] gone bankrupt. We’re in a revolution. We’re in an information revolution right now and it’s a profound information revolution and nobody knows exactly where it’s going to end. Those of us who were raised on newspapers and really have a romanticism about newspapers are sick. I am, that’s how I made my living for so many years full time. I’m saddened by it. It’s wrenching to read about this all the time, to think that this is happening. By the same token, things change. The horse-and-buggy yielded to the car and the railroads yielded to the airplanes. You can’t hold back change, it’s just part of life. Some newspapers are going to be able to adjust to the changes and a lot of them probably won’t. Ten years from now they’ll probably be a lot fewer newspapers. So the question then becomes, ‘What’s the future going to look like?’ Obviously, journalism is going to migrate online. What we don’t know yet is what the lucrative business model is going to be. If journalism goes online, are there going to be enough jobs to support all the young people who are coming out of school and are thirsting to do this kind of work? That’s the question we don’t know. Some newspapers have very good thriving websites. They got into it late and they didn’t think they had to. There might be online-only newspapers. They may just fold up their print versions and not buy giant rolls of paper anymore and mothball their presses and just become online operations. Is that going to be as financially sustainable for a large number of journalists to work in? What are wages going to be like? Are there going to be unions to give them job protection? None of these things are knowable yet but we’re going to learn a lot in the next 10 years. I think a lot of newspapers look at their online operations as potential lifeboats, but right now the lifeboat isn’t big enough for everybody to get in.
Q. There has been talk that newspapers such as The New York Times should cease being for-profit entities and transform into non-profits in order to survive. What do you think?
A. I don’t know the ins and outs of how that would work but I know that some of the large nonprofit foundations and charities and nonprofit trusts in this country, and a couple of them are headquartered in this town, have been asked to lend a hand to help save newspapers. Right here in town, the Pew Charitable Trusts, I know there’s been discussion about this. I don’t think it’s going anywhere but a lot of people think that’s where newspapers are going to be saved, that nonprofits get in and help save them. The problem with that is that the trusts have huge endowments but they’re not going to want to just throw good money after bad. They would ideally want to know they’re going to be building something that’s going to be financially sustainable in the long run. So that’s what nobody knows right now, if there’s any way that newspapers can be reinvented to do that. That’s one of the great unknowns. There’s a giant foundation that I’ve done a little work with sometimes called the Knight Foundation, which is headquartered in Miami, and they’re very interested in journalism because they have a whole journalistic pedigree. But what they basically have been doing is giving money to set up all kinds of online community projects all over the country, which is light years away from coming in and bailing out a newspaper. So I don’t quite see it happening.
Q. Are you confident that Philadelphia has the resources to continue supporting two daily newspapers?
A. Well, they’re jointly owned. They’re part of the same locally-owned corporation and they have a different approach, a different voice, a different tone and somewhat different audiences in the sense that the Daily News really focuses on the city and doesn’t care about South Jersey, for example. The Inquirer is supposed to be more of a paper of record, I suppose, although it doesn’t have the personnel to do paper of record anymore. So they have different tasks, but I wonder. There have been constant rumors that they would merge the two papers somehow. I would hate to see that happen. I would hate to see the Daily News or the Inquirer lose its own character through a merger. To me, it would be a sad day if those two papers had to merge. And that’s even beyond my concern about how many people might lose their jobs in a merger. That’s bad enough, I’ve got friends over there who I care about. But I guess I’m just thinking as much about the readership at both papers and the readership the Daily News has built up over the years, different readership.
Q. There is often talk among conservatives, moderates, and others about the so-called “liberal media bias.” Do you think it exists, and if so, where does it stem from?
A. I think that the media is not monolithic. Particularly now, there’s all different kinds of media. I consider the whole ‘liberal media’ label to be a myth. There’s actually some great books written about this and I think there’s all kind of ways to document how it’s a myth. All we have to do, actually, is look at the run up to the Iraq War. There’s been terrific articles written about this in the Columbia Journalism Review, for example, about how most of the press, The Washington Post and The New York Times, who are considered supposedly the ‘liberal media,’ how they rarely questioned the arguments about weapons of mass destruction during the buildup to the war. The Washington Post buried them. They had one guy who was writing skeptical stories and they buried those stories deep inside the front section. They got very bad play; everybody just ignored them. The New York Times, in general, had these stories written where their sources were these conmen who were working closely with [former Vice President Dick Cheney] who were feeding all these fake weapons of mass destruction stories to The New York Times and they broadcast them all on the front page. It was not until way into the war until things went bad that The New York Times actually went back and they wrote a giant self-examination story where they basically wrote about their own lousy reporting and said we missed all these signals, we got taken in, we didn’t ask good questions. Bill Moyers on PBS did a whole giant documentary about how the press missed the boat on Iraq. Rather than talk theoretically about liberal bias or not bias, because I think the term is just too broad and too hyperbolic, the easiest way to refute it is just to argue concrete examples. The Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau, which a lot of other journalists ignored, precisely because it wasn’t The Washington Post or The New York Times, did some terrifically skeptical, hard, professionally skeptical reporting during the build up to the war, but their stuff did not get great play. A lot of it was just ignored.
Q. So why is this ‘liberal media bias’ label consistently thrown at the media?
A. I think Washington journalists are probably disproportionately more Ivy League in terms of their backgrounds and so you can look and say they’re from the Eastern elite, they’re from the Ivy League so therefore they’re ‘liberal.’ And it’s true they probably are more disproportionately from the Eastern elite. However, the main problem in Washington is not that they have a ‘liberal bias,’ it’s that they have an establishment bias. If you’re in Washington—and I’m glad I never worked there because I think this is one of the institutional handicaps of working there—you tend to listen most closely to the people in power. They’re the people running things, you want to know what’s going on on the inside, you have to stay on good terms with them. They have all kinds of ways that they can intimidate you and manipulate information and play one against the other. And so I think for that reason you’ll be less likely to be willing to sort of be a hard, challenging journalist in that circumstance. If you go back and look at the period after 9/11 and before the Iraq War was launched, you look on TV at some of the press conferences with Bush and people were almost afraid to ask hard questions. There’s books written about this. There’s some books written, very good ones, about how when Ronald Reagan was president, how the press was extremely solicitous of him and a lot of liberals complained that the press in Washington didn’t ask hard questions of Reagan all those years, just like they’ve been complaining that the press didn’t ask hard question of Bush until things went bad for him. The press likes winners so when Bush was riding high, they didn’t question him that closely. It was only when he started to go down that they questioned him closely. So it has nothing to do with ideology. In that sense, it has nothing to do with liberal or conservative.
Originally published Jan. 22, 2009
Originally published on January 22, 2009