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Spotlight: C.J. Chivers

Steven Ward talks to the Times correspondent about life in the Marines, working for the paper of record and why journalistic fundamentals are important

By Steven Ward - July 13, 2005

C.J. ChiversNew York Times Moscow Bureau correspondent Christopher John (C.J.) Chivers joined the daily newspaper journalism ranks following a stint in the U.S. Marines—something that happened far more frequently in decades past. It didn't take Chivers long to move from a mid sized newspaper to the country's most prestigious newspaper. Hard work and quality work, Chivers says in the email interview below, are the best ways to move up the ladder. Chivers talks to Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Steven Ward about his stint in the Marines, working for the Times and why journalistic fundamentals are important:

When you attended college at Cornell, did you have plans or designs on a career in daily newspaper journalism?

No. I hadn't even thought about it. I did want to write. But I knew I had nothing to say, not at that age. And I wanted to live a bit before I found my way to a desk. Newspapers were things I read, not things I wanted to help make. My interest in working for them came about 10 years later, while I was in the Marines.

Why did you join the ROTC at college and enter the U.S. Marines? Do you think your time in the Marines helped you as a journalist?

I didn't [think of] myself as joining ROTC. I saw myself as joining the Marines, and ROTC was a route to get there.

My thinking went something like this: I started college with no military affiliation and was a freshman when a truck bomb leveled the barracks in Beirut. I remember flipping through a copy of Newsweek, looking at the pictures of guys my age in flak jackets pulling at the rubble, and it was deeply affecting. It was 1983. It seemed like half the people around me were talking about getting a money job on Wall Street, or applying to law school or med school, and a lot of the rest were driving around in Saab Turbos their parents had bought for them and trying to score a few grams of cocaine. I found it disorienting, socially and academically. I was lucky to be there, but had no idea how to use that good fortune. I was 18, with a clear sense of what I didn't want, but less sense of what I did. So I was looking at those pictures of the Marines having just had their building flattened and their buddies killed, and I wouldn't say it was an attraction—who would be attracted?—but it stirred something.

I kept quiet about it for a while, but the thought of joining kept pressing in. It seemed like this war was picking up speed—and not the Cold War—and no one noticed it except these guys in pictures with the helmets on their heads. In high school I had been fascinated by the Marine Corps—by its culture and its reputation in combat, by its unapologetic sense of brotherhood—and now I wondered what was going on inside. After a few months I picked up the brochures at a recruiting office and started to think seriously about signing up. I was finding the classroom tedious, and the Marine Corps was this young, globe-roaming society you could escape inside, where the stakes were high and work was rugged and people watched each other's backs. It also struck me as a place largely populated by people who understood that there are things in this world that should be fought, or at least stood up to at moments when the fight was not on. The notion of risk and service were not foreign to our household; my father had served in Vietnam, one of my cousins was training to be a Marine helicopter pilot at the time, and we can trace family members in American uniforms back to World War I. So I started talking with the Marines. I wanted an outdoors job, in the weather and on the ground—a good antidote to sitting in class. The Marines said they could help with that.

As I was thinking through all of this my stubbornness became a factor, because once I started talking about it with my friends and family, so many people told me not to join they made it more alluring. So I drifted through another year of school, getting bored and thinking about dropping out—reading all the time, but away from the list—and one day I decided to take the physical and sign the line. I went to an indoctrination camp run by the drill instructors, and returned to college and kept a straight face through two years of ROTC bullshit—and it was mostly bullshit that had little to do with what the Marine Corps is all about—and after I graduated I went down to Quantico and got a slot in the infantry.

It was the right way for me to pass my 20s. The drill instructors knocked me into focus, and once I left college and showed up at the Marine Corps proper, I was put in a good unit, sent to Ranger school, and in time traveled around the U.S. and to a long list of other countries, and served in the first Gulf War and the peacekeeping operations in the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Except for the months on those dismal, pent-up ships, I enjoyed and benefited from most of it—the patrols in the Philippines, the travel within the United States and abroad, the years inside a brotherhood where race and class drop away more than I've ever seen on the outside, the adrenaline of the helicopters pushing into a landing zone at night, the difficulties of the infantry life and the relentless expectation of excellence, the chance to see elements of American foreign policy (and in Los Angeles, domestic crisis management) right up close, with all of its bold intentions and screw-ups and warts. For right or for wrong, when the United States grinds up against another country, or even engages it slowly over time, the Marines are there at the friction points; to be one of them is to have an insightful seat. I was lucky to have mine.

To me those initials—USMC—are still resonant. The corps is not storied by accident. It is a special outfit with a special frame of mind and a history that almost every Marine wants to live up to and preserve. That's not bullshit. It's true, and a rare truth at that. This is not to say it doesn't have its problems, or its misplaced priorities, or its share of nitwits. It does. Plenty of them. And they should be fixed. But on balance its sins have less weight than its merits, and I'd sign back up now if I were 18 or 19 again.

I ultimately resigned when I was a captain, at 29, in part because I didn't like having rank and the bureaucracy that accompanies it. As I moved up, I was seeing I had less freedom than I had down below, and could see I would be spending less time in the field. I preferred the field to garrison. So I walked.

Later, after I put away my uniforms and sold most of my guns, I found out that it doesn't hurt, personally or professionally, to have been a Marine Corps infantry officer. And, yes, now and then it enriches my journalism. Sometimes it helps in ways that are obvious; there have been times around guns when I have had a much stronger feel for what was happening, or what might have been about to happen, or what could have happened, than I would ever have had if I had not served in the Marines or graduated from Ranger School. There have been days and places where I have been very grateful for that. But more often the help comes socially. I meet former Marines and Rangers all the time, almost everywhere, and we often find a sense among us of common understanding, a set of common memories, a group of ideals and exasperations we share. It has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Germany, Russia, you name it. It happened at Ground Zero. It used to happen up in Providence. You can't put a linear value on that, journalistically, but there have been stories when it has helped me immensely.

Do you think an education at Columbia is important if you want to work at a newspaper? I understand that you had a choice of two big newspaper jobs following your time at Columbia—the Providence Journal in Rhode Island and a newspaper in Philadelphia. Why did you choose the Providence Journal?

Forget the debate about whether journalism schools are useful or useless. Columbia is useful. And forget the ivy. The place is a trade school, and I mean that as a compliment. Let me say I am speaking of the past—I understand Columbia has changed parts of its program, and I know little about these changes, so am not qualified to talk about the present day. But when I went there I wanted very much to learn a craft, and the Columbia j-school knew how to teach a craft. The Marines had shown me—and I still believe this—that excellence is about fundamentals. Journalism is like that, but by the time I decided to try journalism I was 29, and had little insight into the skills I would need. What records are we entitled to? How do you get them? What lines of questioning can elevate an interview, and yield the details and facts and impressions that can elevate a story? How does the First Amendment work in practice? Even little things, like where can we sit in a courtroom? When we're starting out we don't know these things. And by that time I had been a Marine Corps company commander, and I didn't like not knowing where the switches were. Columbia provided a set of answers to these questions, and many others.

Whether the j-school experience is important if you want to work at a newspaper is another question. It depends. If you've worked hard at a solid local newspaper, or are some kind of genius, then you don't need j-school. You probably already know at least half of what they teach, and you may have been smart enough to have been paid to learn it. But if you don't have journalism experience, signing up for a structured curriculum is a good play. What did it get me, short-term? When I left I had interest from the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. These weren't big jobs. They were internships with a small possibility of a full-time slot. I chose Providence because it was clear from the interviewing process that the editors in Rhode Island were more personally interested in their young reporters. And the fishing was better. That mattered.

What kind of reporting and journalism did you produce at the Providence Journal? Did you start out covering school and zoning boards i.e. the bottom of the ladder?

I started in North Providence, which is a suburb of Providence with a population of 30,000 or so. The editors' instructions were simple: if it happens in North Providence, it's yours. I did cops and crime and fires and zoning, went to the school board meetings, read the union contracts and bond issues, chased after the mayor and the police and fire chiefs. I interviewed high school athletes, took obits, wrote about road accidents, turned out modest investigations into job-rigging and benefit fraud—the standard fare of local newspapering in America. That was my brief, just like most everybody else's. On weekend coverage I roamed the region, doing parades and festivals and school graduations. I liked it. (I still do, and I still read The Providence Journal on the web, watching the paper tell the story to the state. Who doesn't enjoy smelling all that muck getting raked?)

After two years the editors moved me into the capital to cover the police at night and Buddy Cianci's city hall. Buddy's in jail now, but when he was banging around the corner office, swilling his scotch and cursing into his speakerphone, hemmed in by crooks and sycophants and cops in knee-high leather boots, he made my job interesting. Covering him was like covering a middle-weight corruption coach; the play that surrounded him was very instructive. People have since joked with me that trying to figure out Buddy was a useful prep for covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. There is some truth there. But there is also another half of the story: The Providence Journal itself has a special energy and I was lucky to work there and get a feel for that level of journalism early in my start. They sent you out to work, and they backed you when you made contact. It was a great break, and I didn't realize it when I signed on, but I see it clearly now.

The only thing out of the ordinary during my time there was that I had an international fellowship—basically a check—from Columbia, and the Journal's editors let me use it to underwrite research and expenses for a trip through the fishing ports in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It led to a series of stories about the destruction of the cod and the looming evaporation of a traditional way of North American life. There is a persistent school of thought that zoning boards and the like are the bottom of the journalism ladder, but writing about the North Atlantic cod collapse was a bit like covering a zoning story, because part of the work required reading up on years of fishery management issues and the details of regulations. I was buried in obscure reports of meetings, reading lawsuits, falling asleep at night with a stack of Canadian and American biological reports on the status of the fish stocks, studying a century's worth of technological change in commercial fishing, trying to grasp the issues. Sure I hung around the docks, went commercial fishing, toured fish plants, ate some seal meat and drank some rum. But most of what went wrong in Newfoundland's fishery happened as a result of bad decisions in government meetings and official cowardice. In many ways covering it was like running down a zoning story. A lot of stories are like that.

How did you get your job at the New York Times after the Journal?

The cod stories won a prize, and at the award luncheon I met Howell Raines, who was then the editorial page editor of The Times. He told me to look him up if I ever came to Manhattan. I went to Manhattan a few times but didn't look him up. I mean, who was I? Howell was putting out the NYT editorial page, and I was a former Marine hanging around this Irish pub called Patrick's or the Providence Fraternal Order of Police bar, hearing cop and politics gossip, farming sources for tips that might grow into stories. When I wasn't doing that I was in the surf down in South County, chasing bluefish and striped bass. Have you ever hooked a 35-or-40-inch striped bass in the breakers? Then lugged the thing home and eaten strips of it raw? These are forms of joy.

I was happy in Rhode Island, and I was planning on getting married and having kids, and teaching them to fish and surf right there, up against the Atlantic. Why would I want to live in some nook in New York? But The Times is a rare place, and I one day figured they don't call twice. About a year later I said what the hell, and wrote Howell and told him when I'd next be in town. Howell was pretty direct. He booked me an appointment, and after a few minutes in his office he asked if I would ever be willing to cover war at The Times. When I said yes, he told me to me apply. So I did.

You started out as a police reporter at The Times. Did you like that beat and what were the plusses and minuses on working that beat there.

I asked to cover cops. I had covered crime and corruption in Providence, and my view was—is—that covering the NYPD is one of the better beats at the paper, providing insight into a fascinating subculture and an essential organization, as well as a fast way to get to know the city. The NYPD also happened to be one of the principal instruments by which Rudy Giuliani ran New York, so the beat was instructive in ways beyond writing up last night's dead. And I got to work with Willie Rashbaum and Kevin Flynn, a real pleasure of the job.

We worked in a grubby office on the second floor of the police headquarters, trying to beat the tabs. It was city newspapering in an old sense. It's fashionable lately to say old-time newspapering is dead. It's not dead. It's alive and doing not half bad, and you can see it in cop and crime coverage in newspapers all around the world. Look at it in The Times, or The New York Daily News, or The Moscow Times. It's right there, in wonderfully high quality.

As for the journalist's journey, in my view, police beats are among the best, as long as you have a heavy stomach and don't mind some of its hassles, like the occasional mean-spirited or condescending cop, and as long as you can be gentle in those moments when you have to, like when you're doing house calls to accused or the bereaved. Exposure to crime can harden you in unhealthy ways, but it can also enlighten you, and equip you with a sense of your own good fortune. It can be very, very valuable to see violence and its effects, those first hours and days after a terrible loss, to realize how lucky you are that your own friends and family are alive each day, and healthy. Like almost everybody in this business, like you, I've rung a lot of doorbells where there is something awful on the other side, but I tell myself—and I mean it—that often when we go into a house where the grief is descending, that newspapers offer a chance at capturing someone's memory. I believe that because I know how intensely crime stories are read by the people involved. So maybe those trips are a minus in cop and crime coverage. Maybe. But they are more than offset by the benefits of the job—the glimpses into human nature, its best and worst sides, and by a look at an enduring puzzle, which will never fully be solved: how does a society police itself? It is also translatable to most other beats.

A lot of what we do here, month in and month out, is a direct extension of covering cops and crime, whether it's the big Chechen raid last June in Ingushetia, the bombing of the two passenger jets that took off out of here last August, the slaughter in Beslan, the crackdown in Andijon. You know what these are, at least part of the time? They are crime stories. Yes, they fall under political coverage. Yes, they tell us something about war and terrorism and counter-terrorism. Yes, they have much to do with nationalism and Islamic revivalism, and how these deeply emotional forces take shape and are resisted, successfully or no, by those who want to block their growth. But these events, in a basic sense, all had their moments as elements of the cop beat. The cop beat accounts for a large fraction of what we do. There are no minuses.

Talk a little bit about your reporting work from Ground Zero? Did you think your Ground Zero reporting led to a spot as a war correspondent and do you think your years as a Marine helped you as a war correspondent?

I worked inside Ground Zero because I was a cop reporter and Ground Zero was my beat. Where else was a cop reporter supposed to be? By chance I happened to be nearby when the first plane hit, and was running toward the south tower it when the second one came in. It was chaos and destruction on scale I never want to see again. But big events are self-organizing. Their own logic takes over. When the buildings came down, the task at hand seemed clear enough: fill the notebooks, and get the notes to the desk. For the first 24 hours I was a straightforward reporter, in a suit, working the scene and ducking and running like everyone else and calling in my notes uptown when I could. There was no tension then between the police and the cop reporters, and the fences, such as they were, got built behind me, meaning I didn't have to show any ID or talk my way past any guards. I was simply there, and the comfort level—or maybe confusion level—was high enough that together we all sort of became a messed-up mass of spectators, unable to have an influence over this mountain of ruins and fire, and trying to take it in, and there was almost no one I bumped into who was trying to do anything as stupid as chase after the reporters, given that there were real problems to deal with. As long as you weren't intimidated by being around a few thousand uniforms, there was absolutely no restriction on the first day, none. So I just stayed put.

Sometime before sunrise on 9/12 I slept 45 minutes or so among a bunch of firefighters who had smashed their way into a furniture store to collapse to sleep on these posh floor-model beds. The next day, I stumbled out of there and checked in at the newsroom, wrote up the last of my notes, and after sleeping a few hours and changing into work clothes, I got back into the zone because I knew the department, had both a NYPD press ID and one of my old USMC t-shirts and I managed to slip through the barricades, as did a lot of other veterans from all over the tri-state area. Some of these cops knew who I was, and they didn't throw me out. So I morphed into a laborer. There were a lot of veterans wandering around down there, and for several days, as long as we worked as hard as everyone else, we were welcome. I worked for a while on the rubble, and then at the food stands, and after a while I mostly hauled garbage, partly because no one else wanted to, which made it a secure job when they started throwing people out. In many ways it was easier to do this physical work than to be a reporter, because you could escape into the rhythm of heavy tasks and not to have to try to make sense of all the murder and fear. If you had a good back and a good attitude for manual labor, you could stay. As long as you remained in motion the place was glad to have your contribution, whether you were a reporter or an insurance agent or a banker or an actor, all of whom I met down there. That was the code: Just keep working, which we did until we were hallucinating with exhaustion.

In the end, the journalism itself was not as difficult as it might seem. I could see, I could hear and, with my garbage bin on wheels, I could roam. The garbage man could go almost anywhere; every cop had a pile of stink he wanted disappeared, in the command posts, in the tents, at the rows of parked fire engines that were sucking water out of the Hudson to douse the pile. And getting word out was not hard. Everyone—cops, firefighters, volunteers—had cell phones, and whenever we took these little sweat breaks I would stand in the crowd of people talking and call uptown and feed the reporters at work, describing what I was seeing. It was both amazing and ordinary, because we were in front of this smoldering, awful mess, but everyone on the phone was usually saying the same sorts of things, describing it. The only difference was I was describing it to a newspaper, and the guy next to me was talking to his girlfriend, or his brother or his wife. And I might have a layer of detail they weren't interested in, like the names of construction companies down there, so someone might follow up.

After about five or six days it finally did get dicey, because rules started to be made, and order began to get imposed, and to be down there you were supposed to have some sort of special red ID badge, which came from God-knew-where. So rather than get hassled or arrested for doing a good deed, which seemed be the position the city administration was advancing toward, I left for a night, cleaned up, and through a source in Albany I was able to return the next morning as an accredited reporter, embedded with the New York National Guard. I was irked at the apparent position of the city government—the administration welcomed volunteers from every trade except ours, and, whatever the underlying thinking was, one of the messages was that somehow we weren't citizens of our own land. I'm still grouchy about that, and doubly so for having served, and for having spent more years in uniform than most of the suits over there in City Hall. I later heard that they said they were trying to protect us, but that was bunk, because when Mayor Giuliani went down there each day he made sure there were reporters in tow to put him on TV. Still, it didn't much matter, because there is always another way, and the Guard provided an excellent opportunity to work. I wandered alongside them for another six days or so, living in one of their tents, and morphed out of volunteer back into reporter. But even that couldn't last. After I got under the trade center ruins, into the subterranean space that survived the collapses, and wrote a story showing that some of the rescue workers were looting the mall down there, my source in Albany called me to say that the administration went ballistic and was pressuring people at the Guard to have me tossed out. So I left. That was that. I went to the newsroom, did some writing, and was sent overseas. As to whether the Ground Zero coverage get me sent out to the war, you'd have to ask whoever made the decision, and I'm not sure whose decision that was. But I doubt it.

I think the war assignments of the last few years flow more from my experiences as a Marine infantry officer. It always seemed inevitable to me that when enough war broke out for The Times to be rushing people overseas, I'd go. It was part of the unwritten contract. No American news agency these days has many people—and many have no people—who have tactical military experience, which unfortunately has become a valuable background of late. And there's no question that it has been more useful to know weapons and tactics and to be comfortable with hardship than to have been one of the accidental souls who was there when the planes came in. But I don't really know what the bosses thought. I wasn't consulted.

When you started out in daily journalism, did you ever think or dream about working as a war correspondent or foreign correspondent overseas for the New York Times or did all this happen by accident?

I thought about covering war, not because I was enamored with it, but because I had spent years in a martial culture and had a certain understanding about how war is waged. And like most people at newspapers I thought about working for The Times or the Washington Post. Who wouldn't, knowing the traditions at these papers, their level of editing, and the commitment they bring to running after stories? The top papers in the country, and not just these two, are special in many of the ways that the Marine Corps is special. They have rich histories. They stake their names in almost every fight. They matter. In spite of their rare failures they've contributed mightily to the country, and generations of reporters and editors and photographers have established institutional reputations for them that the rest of us are trying to live up to, hoping to preserve. But I had no concrete plan to work for them.

Do you think you are young to be a foreign correspondent in Moscow for the New York Times?

I'm 40. That's a pretty normal age on the foreign staff, and it's older than many of us in Moscow, at The Times and elsewhere. If someone thinks I'm young, I'll take it.

What advice would you give to daily newspaper reporters who want to work for a newspaper with the size and influence of a New York Times?

I'm not much on advice, but I'll say this. There is no secret to it. What we do is rooted in fundamentals. Take my job covering Russia. It's not a lot different from covering a town, a city hall, a state legislature or a murder. By that I mean that, yes, okay, the lifestyle is different, and the languages are not English, and the cultures are different, but no matter these external differences, the bones of the job are the same. Every day, whether the subject you are after is familiar or unfamiliar, you go around or call around or email around and ask people to tell you what they know, what they saw, what they heard, what they think. You ask them why any of it is important or interesting. You ask them to tell you how they know what they're telling you. And you ask them to tell you what they don't know, what they didn't see, what they didn't hear, so you can establish the limits of their knowledge. You ask them if there is anyone else you should be talking to and how to be in touch with them. You ask them if there is corroborating material to what they say. Documents? Video? Tape? Transcript? Other witnesses or participants or victims or victors? You ask them what's the best resource out there for understanding the thing you think you're writing about. (It might be an old lawsuit, or a union contract, a book of regulations, a copy of a budget or a medical record; it might be a poem or a local historian or archivist. It could be a family photo album. It could be anything. It could be many things. But there is usually something.)

If you don't know them already, you say: How do you spell your name? What's your date of birth? Where are you from? What's your job? What's your phone number and email address so I can check up on this on deadline if I'm going to use it? There are variations on this, of course, ways to keep pressure on people who need the pressure, to show you can see fishhooks in the bait and that you have no tolerance for error; there is no time today to list them all, and you get the idea.

Then, no matter how the interview went, you thank them.

Then, when you have done enough of this that you feel solid about what you've got, you go back to your laptop, think it through, back check it, talk it over with your editors, write it up, trim 10 or 15 or 25 percent so it's tighter, fact-check it and email it to the desk.

Then you get edited, maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few weeks, but eventually it's done to your desk's satisfaction, and it drops. Then you begin the next chase. That's what we do.

When we're not doing that we're reading everything we can get our hands on, studying, or calling around the sources trying to get traction, looking for the next story or a referral to the next source. It's not like doing brain surgery. It's just plain work. There is no advice except the obvious: work harder than you want to. Then get lucky. And enjoy it, although sometimes we get exhausted enough that we forget that.

Other than that I'd tell anyone who was still young enough to join the Marines. Or the Peace Corps. Or an NGO. Or be a banker or a nurse. Take out a loan and open a shop. Work on a haul seiner. Wrench cars. Paint houses. Paint nails. Teach school. Chase your hobbies, and go wherever you can get and read anything good you can find. Do something, anything, different from the usual route to a notebook and a press pass. Get away from the university and the newsroom while you can. Journalism will still be here when you get done.

You have a few pieces published in Esquire magazine. Was that a goal of yours and do you want to do more of that kind of journalism in the future?

Of course I want to file more stories to Esquire; it's a marker in American male culture, and it's one of the few places left that will do longer pieces of non-fiction. My entrance to its circle was nothing but luck. Mark Warren is the executive editor there, and we met through our wives, who had babies at roughly the same time and became friends at the city playgrounds, in the mom scene. Our sons became fast friends, too, and spent their first few years playing together, and eventually Mark and I crossed paths through the boys. After 9/11 we spent some time together at Ground Zero, and he said something like, "when you get back from Afghanistan, you've got to write about the zone." That was where it began.

Now Mark is a friend, and I'll file to him forever. As for my longer-term goals, and how I'll balance the mediums and the work going forward, it's hard to say with any clarity. When I contemplate coming home from Russia, I worry about the lifestyle that might await me. When I was working in New York I jonesed for something more physically active, and was really missing Rhode Island and being able drive to the beach and boulders after work and cast for stripers for a few hours, or to fish an hour or two before work. It was chewing on me. I thought: my life is slipping away while I ride up and down on the 1 and the 9.

When 9/11 happened I had one little son and my wife was pregnant with another. We had been caught up for months in this conversation about what Annie Dillard wrote, something like, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." I looked at my days: I was riding the subway to and from work, living in this 400-square-foot apartment with two other people and more on the way, scraping by on dollars and worrying that if I raised my sons in New York City, they'd turn out like a couple of Woody Allens. Where were the trees? The birds? The fish? The smell of dirt? The waves? The farms? Fresh air? I thought: I can't do this city for life. No way. Not with kids to raise outdoors. Then the towers came down and we haven't stopped running since.

What kind of work I'll be doing later is anyone's guess. I'll have to sort through the conflicting pulls. Right now I'm working nights and weekends and vacations on a book about the social history of the Kalashnikov, the most abundant firearm ever made. When I finish my time in Russia and get the draft together for the publisher I'll look up and see what's next.

Hopefully, The Times will be there, and Esquire, too, and in a place where my work life can be balanced with our goals for our children. We've got three now, Irish triplets. We're jammed. We spend our spare time washing dishes, mopping floors and reading Dr. Seuss. We'll get around to talking about long-term plans when it's time to talk about that. Right now, it's this. I'm enjoying it too much, and am too busy, to have more planned than I have planned already.

What's the best general career advice you can give a daily newspaper reporter?

I already said that I don't do advice that well, and I've already offered more than I should have. So I'll pass on two of the best tips I've ever heard, both from other journalists. You should attribute the tips to them.

First, Tom Heslin, at The Providence Journal, told a group of us on our first day of work in Rhode Island something I try to remember every shift. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "there's this thing that you need to do between reporting and writing. It's called 'thinking.'"

The second tip comes from Jeffrey Fleishman, of the L.A. Times, who had advice on where to find the best stories in a crowded beat. He said, "always zag." A lot of us wish we lived up to that one better. I know I do.

Steven Ward is a staff writer at The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate where he covers general assignment news in the paper's river parishes bureau. An Operation Desert Storm veteran of the U.S. Navy, Ward also freelances for magazines and webzines.

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