A veteran journalist shares her path to success

How a string of menial jobs made one writer a better journalist.

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Every few months, I teach freelance journalism at an adult education center in Boston, and the first thing I tell my students is that I didn’t become a journalist until I was 30. This always gets the assembled realtors, lawyers, government workers, retirees, and unemployed millennials to sit up a little straighter and pay attention. When I admit that I never worked on my school paper or went to journalism school – yet was a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and Newsweek and have had bylines in many major American publications – relieved smiles stretch across their faces. I sum up my opener with: It’s never too late.

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Conversely, I’ve heard from more than a few recent journalism school graduates about how frustrated they are not to have landed a job at a major magazine within months (months!) of graduation. When I hear their lament, I’m tempted to quote Billy Joel’s song “Vienna:” 

Slow down, you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time…

Instead, I describe my own labyrinthine journey from college graduate, with an oh-so-marketable political science degree, to a temp in D.C. to bona fide journalist.

That journey included a stint as a receptionist at an engineering firm, where one of the other secretaries (that’s what we were called in the ’80s) thought I was encroaching on her territory and decided the best way to put me in my place was to lunge across my desk and slap me across the face. She had to be physically restrained while I grabbed my purse and ran for the door crying. I felt humiliated and angry, and later wished I had stood my ground. I vowed to stand up for myself the next time someone bullied me at work.

Next up was the medical school at Georgetown University, where I had the glamorous job of copying videotapes of medical procedures. My office was in the basement, which was depressing enough, but to get to the bathroom I had to walk past rows of cadavers covered with green sheets – waiting to be “operated on” by medical students. With each step, I was sure that one of the bodies would suddenly sit up and grab me, and eventually it all became too creepy, so I quit. I was only there for a few months, but in that time I became even more determined to find a career that I loved­ — and one that took me out in the world among people.

In the meantime, I took a job as a waitress at a popular place in Dupont Circle. One of my regular customers was a cameraman for the NBC affiliate, and he started inviting me out on shoots. One morning I got to stand behind the camera as Willard Scott delivered the weather for the Today show, and the tiniest light went off in my brain. I didn’t want to be on camera, but I wanted to be part of the media in some capacity. 

Unfortunately, I had no experience, so I had to bide my time and figure out how to get my foot in the proverbial door. I took a job managing an art-house movie theatre in Georgetown, where I was also the projectionist and, to earn extra money, the janitor. I didn’t mind scrubbing toilets at midnight after the movies finished, but I dreaded the nights when the projector or film broke, which meant I had to address the audience. Walking down the aisle toward the front of the house past all those annoyed patrons was nearly as bad as walking past the cadavers. Then I’d race back up to the booth to either splice the film back together (this was long before the age of movie theaters streaming movies digitally) or try and figure out what was wrong with the projector. It was a mad dash to get everything running smoothly and keep the patrons calm. By the end of my year-long tenure, however, I had learned how to think on my feet, solve problems under pressure, and use humor to diffuse tense situations.

By this point, I was in my mid-20s and thinking about a career in public relations, so I moved to the publicity department of a major movie chain. My daily tasks were monotonous, but I spent evenings and weekends working events for the theater chain and local PR firms. I wasn’t paid, but I learned a great deal about how to organize complex events, and I got a glimpse of journalism from the PR side. At a Planet Hollywood opening, I was assigned to the People magazine reporter, and when he said he wanted to get Cindy Crawford and George Stephanopoulos together for a photo, I told each of them that the other had requested a picture. They were both flattered and the reporter got his photo.

Through it all, I was learning valuable skills while gaining confidence. I was also networking at every opportunity. When I was suddenly laid off in 1992, I decided to volunteer for the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign while I looked for another job. 

One day I found myself at the YMCA, on the StairMaster across from the NBC station manager and mentioned that I was working on the campaign. “You know the next step, don’t you?” he asked. Actually, I didn’t. “The White House.” 

On Election Day, I was told to report to a downtown office the next morning. That office turned out to be the Clinton/Gore Transition, and I was hired as the press office receptionist. I finally had my foot in the door, and I was going to make the most of it. As has been reported, the transition was wildly disorganized, and when journalists started calling requesting bios of cabinet appointees and position papers, I discovered that none existed. We worked long hours – 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with two half-hour breaks – but I offered to come in early and stay late in order to create a library of the necessary material. Fielding reporters’ inquiries was like a journalism boot camp.

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Soon I began writing the morning news briefing for the senior staff, which meant I had to get to the office even earlier, but I didn’t mind. I was thrilled to have the responsibility, not to mention the opportunity. One day the D.C. bureau chief of the Sunday Times of London came through my office on a tour and mentioned that he was hiring an assistant. I leapt at the chance, practically forcing him to take a copy of my resume. The White House be damned!

For three years, I worked as a researcher at the Sunday Times, tracking down obscure bits of information and setting up interviews for correspondents around the world. This was long before Google, or the internet for that matter, so I had to use the problem-solving skills I had honed in all those other jobs. In January 1994 I was responsible for setting up a conference for the senior editors, who came to D.C. from London to meet with senior Clinton administration officials. On the morning of the conference, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s communications person called to cancel. That same morning, the Clinton administration announced that it was granting Gerry Adams (then leader of Sinn Fein, which the British considered a terrorist organization) a 48-hour visa to visit the U.S.

Having learned that the DC bureau chief never took no for an answer, I called Christopher’s office back and shouted that I had a room full of angry British editors and the communications officer better get his boss down to the Four Seasons to speak with them. The secretary arrived right on time.

Eventually, I got up the courage to ask my boss if I could try writing a story, and he kindly agreed. By the time he finished editing my first draft (“Your lede sucks”), it was covered in red ink, but I persevered. I learned how to develop a story idea, how to build a source list, the best way to approach an interview, and which bits of reporting and quotes to include and which to discard. The DC bureau chief was a patient mentor, and ultimately gave me a joint byline on a piece that I had initiated. At the end of three years, he told me it was time for me to go out on my own and, at his suggestion, I moved to South Africa to be a stringer for the Sunday Times.

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That was 23 years ago, and when I reflect on all it took to bring me to that point, I feel immense gratitude. The journey instilled in me a steely determination to succeed, and every single job and every failure taught me skills that are invaluable to me as a journalist. I learned the importance of preparation and organization, how to ferret out impossible-to-find information, how to talk to people (especially when they don’t want to talk), how to think on my feet, and how to hustle. And years of rubbing elbows with Hollywood celebrities and the D.C. elite cured me of any infatuation or intimidation with power, and gave me the confidence to go after what I wanted.

So, to all the recent journalism school grads, I say: don’t worry. You may not land that job at The New Yorker right out of the gate, but the jobs you take in the meantime will teach you myriad skills that simply can’t be learned in a classroom. Once you do get in the door, not only will you be better prepared, your success will be all the sweeter for the struggle.

 

—Jaimie Seaton has been a journalist for over 20 years and is a former Thailand correspondent for Newsweek. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Pacific Standard, CNBC.com, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Follow her @JaimieSeaton.