Brown was a unique character, and the grief among his co-workers hardly subsided the month he was away. However, the course of four weeks makes it possible to reflect on how he was not unique but a symbol of his generation of journalists.
Brown and I were both born in the last few weeks of 1963. In my case it was a couple of weeks before the JFK attack, in his case a couple of weeks after.
This timing is an idle coincidence, but it underscores something important. We shared an intergenerational perspective on the craft of journalism. I think it’s held up by a lot of reporters and editors in our age group – those born between 1958 and 1970, for example. In other words, the age group most likely runs almost all types of newsrooms somewhere these days.
This perspective stems in part from the lost feeling that we were growing up too late to partake of a brilliant era of journalism practiced by the generation ahead – the reporters and writers who wrote the story during World War II and recorded in real time in real time 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 people by reputation – reading their stories or watching their shows, and as we got older, devouring their memoirs. Their stories sparked imagination, awe, and a touch of envy. When we actually hit the newsrooms ourselves, a lot of these people were still hanging out in the fall phase of their careers. In my case, I could hear Ben Bradlee telling stories and absorbing gossip Washington Post Cafeteria. But the journalistic fame of this generation was in the past.
But just as we were born too late for one generation, we were born too early for another. Until well into the middle of our careers, we sometimes see our younger colleagues with mixed feelings.
Mostly Positive: There is great respect for their idealism, ambition and insatiability with which they breathe news in a culture that is consumed and saturated by the media at any time of the day. But our admiration is mixed with discomfort. Social media culture – with its strong incentives for insult, outrage, and egomania – can distort the craft of journalism, as Stephen and I learned to do.
The disintegration of traditional business models on many established media platforms, which began and accelerated in the late last century, posed an existential threat to this craft and the values that support it. The generation that follows ours lives in a completely different media world. In some moods at least, neither Stephen nor I liked it very much.
But what sounds like criticism of others is self-criticism. An older generation of journalists trained and inspired us. Are we doing the same for people younger than us? The sting of this question was a main motivator that after a few decades led me to move from reporting to editing and managing the newsroom to founding POLITICO in Washington in 2007.
I’m sure it was also part of what led Stephen to abandon a stellar career as a correspondent around the globe for Reuters, which is close to the Hemingwayesque fantasies of many journalists, to sit in a job interview with me in the spring 2015. He had flown from Berlin to Brussels. I had flown out of Washington as part of the team that helped launch POLITICO Europe. We sat in a dingy conference room in the Residence Palace, an old building that served as the temporary home for our new publication.
It was pretty easy to guess our respective thought bubbles. Stephen wondered whether these Americans who marched loudly to Brussels (with the indispensable help of the German joint venture partner Axel Springer SE) could be trusted and whether we had any real chance of success. I was wondering if, with a traditionalist resume, Stephen could be creative enough and open to innovation to contribute to a new release with a new sensibility.
The interview went well. We wanted Stephen. And for our permanent gain, he wanted to join us. This is how he became part of the founding team of POLITICO Europe when he came out of the field and into newsroom management.
Journalists of all convictions like to see themselves on the side of the good guys. But to put it mildly, a lot of journalists aren’t that great. Stephen was. He was gentle and bald, a normal appearance that looked humble. But just spend a little time with him and you will see his sense of humor and erudition. He learned foreign languages with the same ease that many journalists use to catch stains on their shirts at lunch. His POLITICO colleague Andrew Gray, another Reuters alumnus, called him at his memorial service: “A Cambridge-trained master linguist with the talent to swear straight from his East End [London] Root.”
His responsibilities expanded at regular intervals. And in each of these corners he met and exceeded expectations. He displayed innate leadership qualities – excellent judgment, empathy for his team, a natural gift for projecting responsibility and command – which I believe he did not fully appreciate himself.
This brings us back to my generation point. Belonging to a demographic bridge – too young to be at home in one era and too old for another – can have powerful benefits. As the world of media advances, we have the opportunity to distinguish between the timeless values of the craft and the old habits that we can afford to fall by the wayside.
The old habits are the conventions we should challenge: practices that seem like virtues because they are familiar, but perhaps serve the journalist’s sense of order more than the needs or interests of the reader.
Their justification boils down to “this is how we do it”. When a politician makes a big speech, we write a “reprint” for hard news and a “news analysis” for observation, both with a standard structure and a standard voice. Not all habits are bad, but they should be kept against the light – and once they are, many can be safely discarded.
A value, however, should not be given up. The job of my generation of journalists in the age of media upheaval is to defend and defend their importance. This includes fairness, relevance, a commitment to the public interest and, above all, a willingness to stand up for the tangible reality of the 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 ancient ways – not just the glorious mythology, but their more complicated realities as well. He was also young enough to know the new avenues – not just the flash and the occasional shortcomings of modern media, but the idealism and opportunities for another generation of value-based storytelling.
He left us far too early, but he was born on time for the work of his life.