A holy trinity of journalism gathered in the Pierson College Master’s House on Thursday. Master Harvey Goldblatt introduced his guests: “So much talent, so much goodness on this stage,” he said.
Kevin Buckley sat on the right, in a suit “from 45 years ago,” as he explained. Buckley began his career as the chief of the Saigon Bureau at Newsweek during the Vietnam War and is now a contributing editor at Playboy and an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. His wife, Gail Buckley, an author and writer for Marie Claire, sat on the left. She began her career at Life magazine at a time when women, “as policy,” received half the pay of men. Chris Napolitano, the editorial director of Playboy, was sandwiched between them.
“He was kid when I got to the New York office,” commented Mr. Buckley. “I was a teen progeny,” Napolitano jibed.
The three of them bantered like the old friends that they are, weaving anecdotes through wisdom, undercutting and concurring their different perspectives on the industry. Though they all agreed journalism lacks a business model today, they said they believe the aspiring writers in Goldblatt’s living room will be among the ones to make one up.
“It’s a great time to be observing and writing, because it’s so bad,” Kevin Buckley said.
Napolitano echoed: “They can charge you 20 cents for a text message, but no one knows how to get money out of The New York Times online. That’s really the kink.”
Though Napolitano said he considers women’s magazines the “big kahuna of Magazineland,” he said Playboy’s distribution remains robust. Playboy, along with People, the Economist and National Geographic, belongs to an elite club of magazines that can survive through subscriptions.
“You won’t find a copy at the doctor or dentist office,” he said. “We’re at barber shops and frat houses.”
But Playboy isn’t hiring. Neither are most other publications. The times have changed since the Buckleys’ early era of infinite expense accounts, an age, as Kevin Buckley put it, when the martini was “both the life and the death of many a great idea.” Kevin Buckley, after a career brushing shoulders with Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammod Ali, Mick Jagger and Jimmi Hendrix, to name a few, now says he feels out of step with the zeitgeist.
Napolitano described his difficulties with new graduates in the Playboy office.
“They’re smart and funny to their peers, but then I try to talk to them and … nothing.” Goldblatt suggested using the word “dude” to level with the young folk. “No, don’t do that,” one girl shouted from the audience. “That would just be weird.”
Kevin Buckley shared his own story of generational disconnection: “Joe Lieberman had condemned Marilyn Manson. So right away I liked Marilyn Manson. In a meeting, I suggested: ‘We should do a story about her.’ A friend whispered to me: ‘Marilyn Manson is a group. And a guy.’ ‘You’re probably right,’ I said.”
Industry up-and-comers, these days, are not only hip, but also benefit from a wider range of work experience, Kevin Buckley said. Many old-time journalists, he added, never worked anywhere but the business.
“They’re ignorant,” he complained. “So many of them are incurious.”
All three guests emphasized curiosity — the curiosity of the student who doesn’t only study, of the traveler, of a liberal arts education — as the lifeblood of journalism. Despite their apocalyptic assessment of the industry, it was this note that struck students.
“It was encouraging to hear intellectual curiosity called a marketable skill,” Jacob Siegel ’09 said. “Especially for someone who doesn’t have any other marketable skills.”
For the budding journalist, the three guests couldn’t promise riches or fame. “But it’s fun. It’s just so much fun,” Kevin Buckley assured the audience.
In journalism, success isn’t a straight road, but an Arctic Sea, he said.
“You’re on an ice flow for a while,” Kevin Buckley began with a dramatic gesture. “Then it melts, and you have to hop to the next one.”
To succeed in the industry, he counseled, you have to “write a lot, read a lot, live a lot.” Talent, added Napolitano, is just one of five necessary things. “You need to have an experience worth sharing,” he advised.
“But don’t wait for permission,” Gail Buckley countered. “Just write, and you’ll find an audience.”
“You need to be a bit of a huckster,” advised Napolitano.
“You need to make yourself valuable to someone,” added Kevin Buckley. “Someone who can write a check.”
Buckley agreed that connections can turn talent into a career. But he slightly rephrased Napolitano’s point.
“When you go out in the world, it’s not who you know,” he instructed, “but whom you know.”