Advice to Aspiring Journalists from Dateline NBC's Josh Mankiewicz

Josh Mankiewicz (Photo courtesy of NBC)
Dateline NBC Correspondent Josh Mankiewicz was kind enough to stop by T.Lo Club and give us an exclusive interview about what it's like to be a broadcast journalist, how to get interview subjects to answer the tough questions, and how aspiring journalists can break into the field today. If you'd like to connect with Josh, you can find him on Twitter @JoshMankiewicz 

TL: You have been a correspondent for Dateline NBC since 1995. What has been the biggest challenge of being a television journalist? What are the best parts of it?  
JM: The best part is that I've been able to be a working reporter since 1975, and I wouldn't trade that life for anything. The biggest challenges on a newsmagazine are a little different than the ones I faced as a political or general assignment reporter: We don't air daily, so concerns about the details of day to day reporting are less immediate. I'm more concerned with whether our interviews are good enough, whether the writing is something other than bland and forgettable, whether we challenge every character in the story --especially the sympathetic ones. Does the story have an edge? Is there some velocity to it? Have you invested your audience in the details and the outcome, or did all that go by in a blur?

TL: You've covered a wide range of topics from the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray to the terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Peru. What advice would you give to young journalists who also want to cover these types of in-depth stories?   
JM: Start by covering the police beat, City Hall, and the schools. Reporting is reporting, writing is writing, and there's no short-cut to getting good at either except to do them, a lot. You can't do in-depth work until you're good at the day to day deadline reporting. Every good journalist you admire started this way.

TL: What methods do you use to get shy interview subjects to talk? 
JM: We tell people that we can't possibly tell their story as well as they can, and that they're sure to like the finished product a lot more if they're in it. Sometimes that works. Sometimes not. But it's 100% true. 

TL: How did you break into television journalism?  
JM: I started as a part-time, summer-relief desk assistant on the ABC News Washington assignment desk when I was still in college.  I became full-time after I graduated.

TL: Do you think aspiring journalists need to get degrees in journalism to break into the field now? Or are there other avenues they can use to get their foot in the door, and if so, what are they?  
JM: I don't think it's necessary anymore -but I think it's still very good training to get a graduate degree. An undergraduate degree in journalism/PR/communications is pretty much worthless --maybe less than worthless because it means you didn't take history or literature courses.   Clearly there are doors open now that weren't before; plenty of ways to start writing & reporting via the internet.I would urge all aspiring journalists to learn how to shoot and video-edit their own stories, as well as becoming proficient in computer-assisted reporting. Those are the skills that managers will be looking for in the years ahead.

TL: If you had not become a journalist, what other career could you see yourself doing? 
JM: I often wish I'd gone to law school and then gotten into Federal prosecution somewhere. But then I still wish I'd gone into journalism after that. It would have been good background. And many of the same skills come into play.

TL: What's the best advice you've ever received? 
JM: "An interview isn't a true success unless you learned something you didn't know when you went in, and something your subject didn't want to tell you." -Peter Davis, documentarian and Academy Award-winning director of 'Hearts and Minds' and 'The Selling of the Pentagon'.

TL: Anything you would like to add? 
JM: The news business, particularly at the local level, has been taken over in the last two decades by people who see themselves not as journalists but as programmers, whose job it is to attract and hold an audience, not to tell people what's important or vital to their lives. That alone is a huge reason why main-stream journalism has suffered so much in recent years: because we're not telling people anything they need to know, anything they can't get anywhere else. We're just giving them what we think they want.