Insights on Mentoring in Journalism


An Interview of Don Holt

In order to write an effective article on mentoring in journalism, I knew I needed to find a journalism mentor for myself. I believe I know about mentoring,and maybe something about writing (the reader will be the judge). However, I know little about journalism. That led me to talk with Don Holt, an acquaintance from my church, and a man whose career is well-known in journalism.

Don listened to my general question, and then immediately demonstrated that asking him for insights into the topic was an excellent choice.

A great journalist is a great story teller. His stories have been “boiled down” to their essence and are offered here.

1. Some fields deal in topics which lend themselves to a quantitative measure of excellence. These fields tend to use “metrics” to calculate the degree of quality in work or work products.

2. In journalism, the basic aspects such as spelling, grammar, and word usage allow for those quantitative measures of quality, but the quality of a story and its telling is qualitative, and that requires judgment and a wisdom that far exceed quantitative measures.

3. Story telling is such a personal experience and process that it is nearly impossible to be objective about the quality of one’s own writing. Therefore, “everybody needs an editor”. Even very well-known and senior writers know the truth of this adage and follow it despite their expertise.

4. The development of a journalist, therefore, requires both a formal preparation, such as a university degree program provides and which results in “knowing about”, and the guidance, instruction, and mentoring of a wise and experienced mentor who helps the protégé access, value, and use “know how”.

5. When it is excellent, journalism has a culture of constant critique.

6. The critique is done both of the work of individuals and of the whole team.

7. The critique is done both before and after the production:
….A. Before – How can your piece be made better?
….B. After – How could what we did yesterday have been better?

8. The critique is hierarchical in that the editor is your supervisor.

9. The critique must be hierarchical, for to have several sources of editorial feed back would be chaotic.

10. Generally, the people in journalism are there because they love the work and the profession. As a result, they take great pride in their individual and collective work and the final product of that effort.

11. When they love the work itself, their final product, and their profession, editors naturally will care about the quality of what others on their team do, because it influences the work and the product of the team.

12. Caring about the work of others leads many editors to assume the informal role of the mentor and to invest in increasing the quality of others’ work by sharing their experience, expertise, and wisdom.

13. Since editorial mentoring can occur based on caring about the work and the product, it may happen without the editor caring much about the person. In such cases, the giving of advice and direction can become quite harsh.

14. The natural tendency of editors to become informal mentors and hectic, deadline-focused pace of the work typically result in a general lack of formal mentoring programs.

15. Formal mentoring programs do happen in journalism when there are specific needs identified as critical to the organization, such as gender or ethnic inequities. Therefore, if these programs are effective and the needs are addressed, these programs may not have extended lives. Click here for two specific examples.

Editor’s Comments
1. If “Everybody needs an editor”, then it seems an easy conclusion that everybody also needs a mentor, whether in journalism or any other field.

2. If the leaders of mentoring programs are estute, they will realize that the initially identified needs which lead to development of a mentoring program may not be sufficient to sustain the organization’s interest and support for that program long-term. However, every effective organization is always looking beyond who and what they currently are to where they need to be to deal with competitive and technological challenges that can impact the organization’s continued success and viability.

If your organization has strategic initiatives underway, or has recently revised it’s Mission or focus, there rests the next challenge which your mentoring program should target. Adjust your focus to meet that need and your program’s success and long-term viability will be better linked to that of your organization.

A Brief Don Holt Resume

• Don began as a reporter and later became the Business Editor for the Chicago Daily News.

• For many years he was the Managing Editor of Newsweek Magazine’s International Edition.

• Then, Don became a writer and eventually creator and editor of Fortune Magazine’s International Edition.

• He was an Editor for the Journal of Commerce, the New York City-based arm of The Economist.

• When Don retired from the Journal, he taught journalism at Wheaton College for six years.