Stephen Brown and the Moral Challenge of the Midcareer Journalist

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Stephen Brown, the editor-in-chief of POLITICO’s European operation, last month worked an especially long workday filled with the kinds of things that occupy modern newsroom leaders. There were long discussions with colleagues about strategy and “product launches.” There was some brass-tacks talk about budgets and personnel and the org chart. And, yes, rest assured, there were robust conversations about how best to cover that week’s news.

He told a co-worker he was not feeling so well, and would have to miss some meetings the next day for a physician’s appointment. That night and early the next morning he was really not feeling well, so he went to a Brussels hospital. It was there that he died that day, March 18, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 57.

He had emerged in the last years of his life as one of the most influential journalists on the Continent. His editorial judgments illuminated and, more than occasionally, set the agenda for the vast European Union policymaking apparatus based in Brussels, where even seemingly obscure rulings can echo with large consequences around the world.

Brown was a unique character, and the grief among his colleagues has hardly abated in the month he has been gone. But the passage of four weeks allows for reflection on the ways that he was not unique but emblematic of his generation of journalists.

Brown and I were both born in the closing weeks of 1963. In my case it was a couple weeks before the JFK assassination, in his case a couple weeks after.

That timing is idle coincidence, but one that underlines something significant. We shared a generational perspective on the craft of journalism. It is one held, I believe, by many reporters and editors broadly in our age group — those born, say, between about 1958 and 1970. In other words, the age group most likely these days to be running newsrooms of all sorts, almost anywhere.

That perspective is born, in part, of a forlorn sense that we came of age too late to partake fully in a lustrous era of journalism practiced by the generation before us — the reporters and writers who captured history in real time during World War II and Vietnam, the Cold War and colonial liberation movements, the Watergate scandal in the United States, or the Profumo Affair in Brown’s own United Kingdom.

When we were young, we knew these older folks through reputation — through reading their stories or watching their broadcasts, and then as we got older through devouring their memoirs. Their stories stimulated imagination, reverence, and a touch of envy. By the time we actually arrived in newsrooms ourselves, many of these people were still hanging around, in the autumnal phase of their careers. In my case, I might get to hear Ben Bradlee telling tales and soaking up gossip at the Washington Post cafeteria. But that generation’s journalistic glories were in the past.

Yet just as we were born too late for one generation, we were born too early for another. Deep into mid-career, we sometimes view our younger colleagues with mixed emotions.

Mostly positive ones: There is vast respect for their idealism and ambition and voraciousness with which they inhale news in a culture that is consumed by and saturated in media at all hours of the day. But our admiration mingles with unease. The culture of social media — with its powerful incentives in favor of insult, indignation and egomania — can distort the craft of journalism as Stephen and I learned it.

More profoundly, the decay of traditional business models at many established media platforms, starting late in the last century and accelerating in this one, represented an existential threat to that craft and the values that sustained it. The generation following ours inhabits a very different world of media. At least in some moods, neither Stephen nor I liked it much.

But what sounds like criticism of others actually is self-critique. An older generation of journalists educated and inspired us. Are we doing the equivalent for people younger than us? The sting of this question was a primary motivator that led me to move after a couple of decades from reporting to editing and newsroom leadership, and eventually to the founding of POLITICO in Washington in 2007.

I feel sure it was also part of what led Stephen to contemplate leaving a distinguished career as a correspondent around the globe for Reuters, actually approximating the Hemingwayesque fantasies harbored by many journalists, to be sitting in a job interview with me in the early spring of 2015. He had flown to Brussels from Berlin. I had flown from Washington, as part of the team helping launch POLITICO Europe. We were sitting in a dingy conference room at the Residence Palace, an old building that briefly served as home for our new publication.

It was pretty easy to guess at our respective thought bubbles. Stephen was wondering whether these Americans marching noisily into Brussels (with the indispensable help of German joint venture partner, Axel Springer SE) could be trusted, and whether we had any real prospects for success. I was wondering whether Stephen, with the resume of a traditionalist, could be creative enough, open to innovation, to contribute to a new publication with a new sensibility.

The interview went well. We wanted Stephen. And, to our lasting gain, he wanted to join us. In doing so, in coming out of the field and into newsroom management, he became part of the founding team of POLITICO Europe.

Journalists of all persuasions like to think of themselves as on the side of the good guys. But, to put it mildly, lots of journalists are not such great guys. Stephen was. He was mild-mannered in demeanor, and balding, regular-guy unassuming in appearance. But spend even a little time with him and you realized his humor, and his erudition. He picked up foreign languages with the same ease that many journalists pick up lunch stains on their shirts. His POLITICO colleague Andrew Gray, another Reuters alumnus, at his memorial service dubbed him, “A Cambridge-educated master linguist with a talent for swearing straight from his East End [London] roots.”

At regular turns, his responsibilities expanded. And at every one of those turns, he met and exceeded expectations. He revealed innate capacities for leadership — superb judgment, empathy for his team, a natural gift for projecting responsibility and command — that I believe he may not himself have fully appreciated were within him.

This brings us back to my generational point. Belonging to a demographic bridge — too young to be at home in one era and too old for another — can have powerful utility. As the world of media keeps galloping ahead, it provides us with the perspective to distinguish between the craft’s timeless values and old habits that we can afford to let fall by wayside.

The old habits are the conventions we should be challenging: practices that might seem like virtues because they are familiar, but perhaps serve the journalist’s sense of order more than the reader’s needs or interests.

Their justification boils down to “that’s how we do it.” When a politician gives a big speech, we write a hard-news “lead-all” and an observational “news analysis,” both with a standard structure and voice. Not all habits are bad, but they should be held up to the light — and once they are, many can be safely discarded.

A value, by contrast, should not be surrendered. The task for my generation of journalists, in age of media upheaval, is to defend and vindicate their importance. These include fairness, relevance, a commitment broadly to public interest and, supremely, a willingness to stand firm for the tangible reality of facts against the partisans, demagogues and tyrants who try to deny, suppress and distort them for their own ends.

Stephen was old enough to know the old ways — not just the glorious mythology but their more complicated realities. He was also young enough to know the new ways — not just the flash and occasional flaws of modern media, but the idealism and the possibilities for another generation of values-based storytelling.

He left us far too early, but for the work of his life, he was born right on time.

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