From Bosnia and Herzegovina - ©Media Online 2001
A Letter to a Young Journalist
Managing editor of Media Online has recently
asked me to write a text, which would be a sort of my advice for young
journalists. Is there a more difficult task for someone who has listened to
others’ advice little or newt in his own life? If only I had been a
hardworking pupil at school, but I wasn’t even that. Nevertheless, it has been
for years already that I have been addressing the hard and complex drama of this
region on the pages of various papers and magazines, so as I see and experience
it, having thus acquired a rare privilege: to have the readers believe me. Look
at what your life is!
Of course, I do not believe that I would have nothing to say to a young person
who wishes to be a journalist. But by no means can this be advice, because the
very notion of ‘advice’ sounds a bit too academic. In addition to this, even
among us journalists of the same generation, individual experiences vary to a
large extent. However, I have agreed to write a brief letter to a young
I know that the need for the so-called advice always hides behind it that
magical question: how does one become a good or even a top journalist? It’s a
hard question, my dear young friend. I believe that profound curiosity is a top
priority. An ant traveling through dust carrying his cargo deserves the same
kind of, if not a larger, curiosity just as that moment while the “Peace”
space station was plunging into the ocean deeps. I told this to a young French
journalist lady, who recently visited me at my apartment. She said that as a
little girl she really liked lifting stones up to search for ants and to observe
these hardworking minute creatures. “Then you’re on the right path”, I
said and added: “Read the best books and keep company with smart people”.
“And how do I find them?”, asked that gentle, lucid girl. “There are some,
here or there one can find a smart person around”. Now I am adding for your
sake, my younger colleague: “You just need to know how to recognize them
What qualities must a young journalist have in order to grow and become a
leading pen? I usually answer: “He or she must know all the thirty letters of
the alphabet.” This is to be understood as a slight irony, of course. What I
mean is: you must know all the letters, while all the rest is self-understood. A
late friend of mine, who used to be the Yugoslav ambassador assigned in France
during the times of De Gaulle, told me that during a visit he had made to the
Paris “Monde” magazine, he asked its famous manager Fontaine what the main
requirement was for a journalist to be employed with this magazine. “That he
have a perfect mastery of the French language”, replied Fontaine, and this is
what is self-understood.
What follows is the art, getting tough with constant deadlines and frequent
stressful misunderstandings with editors, those cynical fault-finders, from whom
you can sometimes learn so much that you remain grateful to them for life. The
art is the key point in growing up to become an excellent journalist. And this
is best and quickest learned in the mill, working day and night, called newsroom.
By no means do I forget the talent, that grain of yeast that makes the dough
blow up and that distinguishes the top journalists from the god artisans. But
the talent works just like a parachute: it is good if it opens up on time!
Nevertheless, the talent is just a vial for the wine, which is a mixture of
broad education and life experience, but a vial that can not be substituted.
Talent can not be “learned” at any university. When asked by his younger
colleague as to what the role of the school is in shaping a journalist’s
personality, a famous journalist cynically responded: “Have you ever heard of
a school in the Wild West where people were taught how to be fast in pulling up
More than by any school, I was helped by a casual sentence, one of those that
are heard once but understood for the rest of your lives. As a young journalist,
in Dubrovnik I met a man whose name was Kosta Strajnic. I owe him one of the
most beautiful things I ever heard in my life. A painter and art historian,
Kosta Strajnic was a European traveler and a bohemian. In early thirties of the
past century he had left Paris and settled down in Dubrovnik. I met him when he
was already eighty. That gentleman had raised generations of young painters. Of
course that he could not teach even the most talented among them how to become
Picassos, but he entrusted to each of them his big secret: “If the heart is
not burning hot, then my young man, the painting won’t either”. Remember, my
dear young friend, about this thought, because it equally applies to journalism.
A journalist who will not accept being a cold observer must be ready to a speedy
exhaustion of his person: each professional experience takes away a bit of his
heart and soul. However, as Hemingway said: “I can not confine myself into a
bank treasury safe”.
Neither do I forget the moral side of the journalist profession, on the contrary
– I believe it to be a foundation. I cannot imagine a true journalist without
that Camus-like feeling of the tragic of life. If nothing, it is gentlemanly to
take sides with the weaker. Of course, a journalist can be “bought”. But I
will only comment like this on that issue: once bribed, a journalist is always
paid too much, because it soon turns out that he could have been bought at a
much lower price.
Good but selective memory is very important. And therefore, whenever you can,
instead of the cassette recorder hook up your brain, because only your brain can
tell the relevant from what is not.
As for the writing itself, I have always supported conciseness, precision and
short forms. Perfection is called simplicity. Therefore, write so that your
elderly mother can also understand you.
When some years pass behind, some moments arrive when you come to doubt the
purpose of anything you might be doing and when you wonder: did I need all of
this? Had it not been better if I had made some good wine or been the owner of a
small restaurant where my friends would gather? You had better ask those
questions of yourself as early as now, before it gets too late. For the life of
you do not enter this profession expecting that you will ever become rich or get
a monument even in the smallest street – because you shall be eaten up by
If you have overcome this obstacle too – then just go ahead! The only other
thing I can tell you is – good luck, my dear young friend!
Gojko Beric is a prominent journalist and columnist of
some leading newspapers and magazines in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in
the whole of the former Yugoslavia. Translation by: B.R. ©Media Online 2001.
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