Professor Steven Greenhouse ’73 is the New York Times’ Labor Correspondent, the author of the 2008 book “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” and the University’s Koeppel Journalism Fellow this fall. The Argus spoke with Greenhouse about his time at Wesleyan, the importance of good journalism, and how to teach a class about it.
The Argus: What do you read?
Steven Greenhouse: I’m an animal of the news media, so I read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, [and] The Washington Post each day, [and] I read the amazing New Yorker magazine every week religiously. I also read The New York Review of Books, I read Business Week, and I look at The Economist, so it’s a lot of stuff. All that takes a lot of time. In terms of the books I’m reading, I just finished a book called “A Thread of Grace,” a novel [by] Mary Russell. It’s about the resistance in Italy towards the end of World War II, fighting against the fascists and efforts to save Jews. And I read it in tandem with my going on vacation there. It’s not the world’s greatest novel, but it’s a good read. And then I’m reading a book about what I write about, called “The State of the Union” by Nelson Lichtenstein, who’s a labor historian [at] UC Santa Barbara; [he’s] one of the nation’s leading labor historians. So it’s a subject I follow. I wrote one book about American workers as well.
A: Have you considered writing another?
SG: Yes, I might. It’s just about finding the time.
A: How did you decide what to teach in your class?
SG: In terms of what I’m assigning and recommending for the class, it’s some very good basic writing primers: “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, and the famous “Elements of Style” [by] Strunk and White, which I read when I was at Columbia Journalism School. It’s a little dated but it still has a lot of good advice about the basics of writing. I think they’re really both good. As this is the first real writing course I’m teaching, I see that there are some other writing books that others are assigning, so I have to get up to speed more.
I’m assigning “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, which I think is a wonderfully written, wonderfully researched book that really taught me a lot about how to write and how to always keep the reader engaged and how to take masses of dense material and food-process or Cuisinart it, kind of digest it for the reader and write about this complicated field in a way that’s fun and accessible and makes a point. I thought Eric Schlosser did a marvelous job. It’s a phenomenal bestseller and I think it’s a good model for a writing class, too. It shows points of good research, how to translate your good research into good writing, how to be clever and engaging and keep your readers involved while making important points.
I’m assigning “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell, which is a very influential book to me because I’ve always admired Orwell’s search for the truth and the way he put his life on the line and trying to fight against Franco and fascism in the Spanish Civil War [in] 1936. And in “Homage to Catalonia” he really wrestles with trying to find out as a soldier [and] as a citizen as a journalist what’s really going on, which side is really fighting for whom. Is he really fighting for the anarchists, the idealist anarchists that he thought, or is Stalin pulling the strings? I think it’s a wonderful book about firsthand describing the experiences on the lines of war, and the political journalistic exploration of what’s really going on out there.
And then I’m assigning an amazingly-written nonfiction book, “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” [by] Katherine Boo, which I just think is an extraordinary piece of nonfiction. The writing is elegant, and the research is astounding. I’ve read Katherine Boo before in The New Yorker, and I thought, “This woman is amazing.” And when I was reading this book I said, “How could she have gotten the level of detail with these nine-year-old and 11-year-old street urchins in this poor slum in Mumbai?” Then when you finally get to the end, you realize that she had these kids videotaping each other and that she got this degree of engagement that’s very similar to reality, that is very, very rare for any writer, nonfiction writer or fiction writer.
And then I’m assigning a book by an esteemed Wesleyan graduate, Alex Kotlowitz, “There Are No Children Here,” where he followed poor kids…in horrible housing complexes of Chicago. I thought that was a wonderful book that shows how you can…translate good reporting into literature. And it’s not just run-of-the-mill writing; it’s really elegant, moving writing that tells moving stories. I almost sound as if I know what I’m talking about.
A: What kind of themes and ideas were you hoping to explore when you designed this course?
SG: So the name of the course is Journalism: Nonfiction Writing and the Search for Truth, sometimes as I want to joke, The Search for Truthiness. So when I discuss the basics of writing, I think that Zinsser‘s “On Writing Well” and Strunk and White do that very well. And then I want to assign some books I think that really show good writing and the search for truth. And certainly in “Homage to Catalonia,” “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” “Fast Food Nation,” there are many ways [to] search for truth I believe.
A: How are you translating your work experience as a reporter into the classroom?
SG: I’m assigning a whole bunch of articles. I’m assigning this very good piece for this week, “Doubt”, from The New Yorker by [William] Finnegan, about…his search for truth when serving on a jury, [and] some wonderful pieces by Sarah Stillman, this young Yale graduate [who] wrote a spectacular piece about 20-somethings who were arrested for marijuana and turned into undercover agents and put into egregiously dangerous situations. And so I’m assigning a lot of articles in addition to the books. I’m assigning some stuff about how to interview, how to write a lead, and there are some editing exercises.
A: How is it interacting with Wes students from a professorial perspective for a change?
SG: I’ve only met them once and I’m trying to get to know students better, and I probably should have asked them to write more about themselves so that I know more about them. I think some are very interested in being writer-writers, and some are very interested in being journalists, and I don’t know quite yet who wants to be what.
Coming from The New York Times, I know a lot of people who are into investigative journalism, business journalism, etc. Business is very big now, but I don’t know any people in the class who are into that end of things. Everyone wants to write good features, everyone wants to write brilliant profiles, so I’m trying to figure that out.
A: Have you tried to incorporate your own work into your teaching?
SG: Last week I discussed the front-page piece I had written this Sunday about so-called “wage theft,” and I thought either this week or next week I might discuss [my] piece on child farm workers. I think part of me is reluctant because I worry it seems like I have a big ego and I’m flaunting my ego, but on the other hand I think students are interested in talking about, “Hey, you have…a big story that made quite a splash about an important issue that many people are interested in, and let’s discuss how you got it, how you did the reporting, how you did the writing. Why did you put this character in this paragraph? Why did you put this at the end?” We’ve only had one class, but Wesleyan students are pretty uninhibited.
A: How did you find your niche as a reporter?
SG: So at The Times I started as a business correspondent. I was Editor-in-Chief for The Argus, went to The New York Times my first year out of Wesleyan as a copyboy, getting coffee, sorting mail. Then I went to Columbia Journalism School for a year where I specialized in economics writing. I worked in northern New Jersey for three years where I wrote about school boards for a year, then I wrote about economics and labor, then I went to law school where I specialized in Constitutional Law and Labor Law. At The New York Times, I started as a business reporter, and I was in Chicago for three years as a business-economic correspondent. I was in Paris for five years as an economics correspondent, and then I was in Washington for four years covering the first two years covering the Federal Reserve, and then covering the State Department. I wanted to write about people again. And the labor beat was open.
A lot of people say it’s a boring beat. I thought, there are 150 million workers and there are a lot of interesting stories about workers. It’s not just about labor unions. It’s about struggling farm workers, and struggling immigrant workers, and sex/race/religion discrimination at work, how workers are getting treated on the job, and public safety problems at work, and some companies that do a great job in how they treat their workers, like Costco. I’ve been doing this beat a long time and I haven’t gotten bored with it. I find a lot of good stories.
A: Do you have any career advice to current Wesleyan students?
SG: It’s important to show your passion, your interest, your hard work. In any field, whatever you want to be—science, law, environmental studies, journalism—it’s important to show passion and interest and have your nose to the grindstone. I think it’s important to do what you love to do. It’s a hard job market, a lot better than it was five years ago, but try to find something that you love to do, that you feel a passion for. This sounds clichéd, but I went to law school, and I have friends who work and make a lot of money on law jobs who really aren’t that happy with their jobs. And I find people where I work, at the Times [who] love what they do. They love to write, they love to do research, they love to report, they love to write about what they think is wrong in the world and use the power of the press to “comfort the afflicted and the afflict the comfortable,” I think is the phrase.
It’s harder to get into journalism than it was when I graduated in 1973, and so I think putting yourself in journalism is a lot like putting yourself into basketball. If someone watches you on the court for 10-15 minutes they can see very quickly whether you have talent or not. And in writing and journalism I think people can see very quickly from reading your clips whether you have talent or not. So it’s important to work on your writing, to improve your writing. Some people are great investigative reporters and maybe they’re not great stylists. Some people are great stylists and maybe they’re not great investigative reporters. Some have great news sense in writing about politics and writing certain pieces. I think even as many institutions in the traditional legacy news media are having problems, it’s extremely important to somehow maintain a thriving press or news media…I think the nation and the world will continue to need good journalists to help expose wrongdoing and enlighten the public.
This interview was edited for length.