In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their field, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.
They talk about how they got to be where they are, mistakes they’ve made, and what they’ve taken away from those mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.
This week our featured alum is Walter Middlebrook (COM’76), an assistant managing editor at The Detroit News, responsible for overseeing the paper’s investigative team. He also edits its weekly entertainment and opinion sections. Over the course of his career, he has written and edited for numerous newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star, the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, USA Today, Newsday/N.Y. Newsday, and the New York Times, where he edited the paper’s “Styles of the Times” weekly section. Middlebrook was an assistant features editor at The Detroit News for a year in 1987 before heading to USA Today, and returned to the paper in 2007 as director of recruitment and community affairs. He was promoted to assistant managing editor of the “Metro” section in 2009 and assumed his current position in 2014.
Middlebrook received a College of Communication Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015.
BU Today: How did you come to study at BU?
Middlebrook: I was a transfer student who took a tortured path to get back to the school that originally accepted me for admission when I graduated from high school. At that time, I turned down the invitation from BU and spent two years at MIT, where I was introduced to journalism, believe it or not. I took a year off and spent a year as a clerk at the Boston Globe. I returned to my hometown of Memphis, Tenn., under the assumption that I was getting a reporting job at the newspaper there, but that fell through as I was told the only thing available at the paper was a “clerk” position. So I worked nights at the paper under horrible conditions and took a semester of classes at Memphis State University before returning to Boston, where I was admitted to Boston University, to begin studying for a degree in journalism.
As a veteran journalist, what qualities do you look for in the people you hire?
There is no correct answer on what to look for in a potential employee. The factors are many: Does this person have the skill set to accomplish the job? Will this person fit into the setting, the team, or the newsroom where this opening exists?
I am always looking to see if the desire is there, some call it passion, others look for the fire in the belly of the applicant. Every job candidate brings something different to the team and as a manager and a hiring editor, my goal is to push to keep that diversity of talent coming into the office and to keep that talent in our offices. And as a manager and hiring editor, I think it’s important that I find people who want to grow and are willing to take chances and not stay in the same positions forever.
What are some of the typical questions you might ask an applicant during an interview?
This question is adjusted to the position and to the applicant. I don’t expect young people to have a lot of experience, so I want to get a measure of their life experiences. I want to know how they find sources and story ideas, where they hang out outside the office, what they’ve done that has prepared them to come into my newsroom.
I listen to the interviewee and ask follow-up questions based on what I hear. I want to know how the applicant handles a difficult session with his or her editor. I want to know how this candidate handled a difficult interview or a difficult employee. I want to know how the subject handles criticism. I want to know the successes that this person has achieved and how that was accomplished. The query that seems to most often throw the interviewee for a loop is related to his or her résumé: If this résumé is a picture into your soul, what is missing from that picture?
What advice would you give someone interested in journalism?
Understand the playing field and how you fit in it. Some people can walk into a metro newsroom and fall right in, some need to get more seasoning. And don’t get upset when someone tries to tell you to take your time and get that seasoning. Keep reading and watching how the news is changing. And don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, especially while in college or in the early stages of your career. Be mindful that everyone makes a mistake somewhere in his or her career. And when you start looking for that first job or internship, pick a place where you know there’s someone who can teach you or who will take you under his or her wing.
What advice would you give a new reporter the first day on the job and six months later?
I would almost suggest that the more appropriate advice I could offer here would be when a job applicant comes in for the interview process. Walk into that office with some knowledge of the organization you’re working/interviewing with. Know what stories are being covered, what the latest news is related to those stories, and who is doing the reporting. Be prepared to discuss how those stories are being played/displayed in the publication or on its website. Ask questions if something doesn’t make sense, and don’t be ashamed to ask a question. The worst thing you can do is proceed without the necessary information. Did I mention that you should not be afraid to ask questions? Make friends with the secretaries and the clerks—they will be your salvation down the road.
In six months, you should have created a considerable file of local contacts. You should have had coffee/drinks with many of your colleagues. You should have identified who your best sources in the newsroom are for information about the region or your beat. You should have spent some time getting to know your primary editor. You should know what makes this person tick—what are the things this editor looks for in stories and what sets him or her off? You also should have become very comfortable getting around the area. At the six-month mark, you also should be very comfortable in knowing how your news organization works and who to go to when you have questions and concerns. And at this point, you want your sources talking to others, particularly your editors, about what it’s been like working with you. Hopefully, they’ll talk about your doggedness, your desire for clarity, and your undying attention to detail and to getting it right. Those kinds of references are invaluable.
Never stop learning or putting yourself in positions to learn.
What mistakes have you made during your career, and what lessons have you learned from them?
My biggest mistake is that I follow rank and command and that doesn’t necessarily always work in a newsroom. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel gets all the attention in this business and that hasn’t changed during my tenure in this industry. Some very good people are overlooked or ignored because of their demeanor. I have learned as a manager that I have to fight for those people, though that can be dangerous for me as a manager, too. Throughout it all, I want to think that I’m strong enough, or should I say, that I’ve been through enough, to not let those barriers stifle my growth. One thing it may do, though, is delay your advancement. But if you put in the time and effort, you can overcome those barriers.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?
I’m a very lucky person. I was born and raised in the Deep South during segregation. And I was raised with a father in the house. He was not an educated man, but he taught me the value of work, ethics, and self-esteem. He even went without employment for several years because of his activities in the labor movement. Between my father and my mother, we never went without food or ever thought that we were poor.
My father always supported me in my endeavors—Boy Scouts, band, athletics, summer camps, to name a few—even though he could relate to none of these activities. He would rather work on the car when I would rather be reading, but that was OK. And it was that foundation that led me to the journalists who would help me find my way through the pitfalls of this industry. Those individuals are David Nimmer, former managing editor of the Minneapolis Star, who offered me my first full-time job; Deborah Howell, former Newhouse News Service Washington bureau chief and former managing editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press; David Hamilton, former assistant managing editor of Newsday; and Don Forst, former editor of New York Newsday and the Village Voice. Probably the toughest S-O-B I ever worked for.
Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.
December 11, 2019
November 25, 2019
October 21, 2019