The Draw of the New City-States

“London and New York, with roughly the same populations, have become booming city-states that reflect 21st-century openness and fluidity, but also the skewed economics and growing inequalities of a world where finance has outflanked the law and the global rich find ways to game a system that holds the majority in its grip.

“In London during these boom times, the disparities can feel obscene. Still, London does the public sphere, like bike schemes, road surfaces and the subway, much better than New York. It is a European city, after all. But it sits in a middling nation well past its zenith. New York does power, directness and steak a lot better than London. It races and churns. London carries on.”

Roger Cohen, The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2014

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One of the craziest things I did in college was to take four classes from Conrad Fink in the course of two quarters. I was partway through my junior year at the University of Georgia before I applied to the Grady College of Journalism. At that point, I also hadn’t worked at the student newspaper, the Red & Black. As such, I was in a rush if I was to graduate on time. I don’t remember having much of an impression of Fink* before I landed in one of his classes, even though his liberal use of a red editing pen was well-known in the halls of Grady. But in less than six months, he became the greatest teacher I ever had.

(* Fink always referred to students by their last names, and most of his students referred to him only by his. I didn’t learn the first names of some of my closest friends in college until weeks after meeting them in one of Fink’s classes.)

By the time he joined the university in 1983, Fink had already had a career any journalist would envy: an Associated Press correspondent in south Asia during the 1960s who went on to become a vice president at the news service. He later shared his experience with, literally, thousands of UGA students. I was one of them.

He began each class by leading a critique of that morning’s papers, starting with the Red & Black. Fink always said the most important thing the “untutored and unwashed” could do to further their journalistic careers while at school was – with the exception of taking his classes – to work at the R&B, and I think he always had a soft spot for those of us who did, even if late nights spent in the newsroom meant our grades weren’t among his students’ best. As embarrassing as it sometimes was to have him dissect one of your stories in front of the class – “Stanford, your own mother wouldn’t read that lede!” – to this day I remember the compliments he paid some of mine.

(Scene: Fink walks in and drops a two-foot length of cable the size of your wrist on the table at the front of the class. He then barks about how, in his day, the stories he sent from the rice paddies of Vietnam had to travel, one painstaking character at a time, over this sort of cable to the AP office in New York. It took forever. But now, he said, waggling his legendary eyebrows, the same story can be sent over a fiber optic cable far smaller than this – holding up his pinkie – in less than the time it’s taken me to tell you this story.)

I graduated from the university’s journalism school in December of 1994. Not being the traditional June commencement, there wasn’t a lot of pomp or circumstance or caps or gowns. Fink was good enough to pose for a photo, despite my questionable taste in neckwear:

I went on to work at the Augusta Chronicle and the Orlando Sentinel. Unlike some “Finksters,” I didn’t keep in close touch with him after leaving school. I did call him once for advice when I was in Florida, after an editor in Augusta e-mailed me, wondering if I might be interested in returning. “Never go back,” Fink said. “Always move forward.”

And so I did, eventually landing at the Washington Post. A couple of years ago, he left a message on my Facebook wall in the terse syntax of someone who once had to make every word count: “stanford, why i never hear from you? others check in. what now doing at post? fink”. We exchanged e-mails, and he then invited me to return to the j-school and spend nearly a week talking to classes about my newsroom experience. To my initial fretting about keeping the students entertained, he responded simply, “Keep your sentences brief and interject what I remember to be your feeble sense of humor – and we’ll have a ball.” We did.

Here we are again last February, after my “keynote address,” a little more than 16 years after the photo above was taken:

Fink died on Saturday after a long battle with cancer. Appropriately, Russ Bynum -- a college friend, Finkster and current AP reporter in Savannah -- wrote his obituaryFink’s Facebook wall is awash in tributes, many far more eloquent than this one, and a Google map tracking his influence on the nation’s newsrooms quickly popped up.

Part of what made Fink a great teacher was that he was as generous with his time as he was often measured in his praise. I’ve had many professors and managers who said they had open door policies; Fink really meant it (“The door is always open, the traps always set”).  

The Internet has forever altered the news business in the time since I left Fink’s classroom, even more than the fiber optics that replaced the cable he once brought to class. Even if Fink didn’t fully anticipate the coming changes -- and no one did -- his lessons stand. In a video that’s been widely circulated in the days since he died, Fink discusses journalism in the age of Twitter (of which he was mildly dismissive but still used):

“Journalism is why, what, where, what does it all mean, what can we expect. That’s journalism.”

A Return to ‘Sweet Valley High’

I was the wrong age and gender for the “Sweet Valley High” series, but this is why I’ve never re-read “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“… as much as you long to see what your favorite youthful literary characters became when they grew up, that longing dissipates quickly when you learn the answer is ‘idiots.’”

Monica Hesse, The Washington Post, March 29, 2011

“TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.”

— David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again