Ohio Journalist

Living the Dream

By Rika Nurrahmah

. Photo by .

(June 11, 2011) — The first time Andy Alexander, BSJ ’72, applied to work at the Washington Post, the publication rejected the fresh college graduate and left him “crestfallen.”

“I really thought I belonged at the Washington Post,” said Alexander.

Before Alexander’s career path boomeranged back to the publication in 2009 when he became the newspaper’s ombudsman, the journalist spent more than 30 years working various positions with Cox Newspapers.

Alexander worked his way up from being a reporter for the Dayton Daily News in 1976, to Deputy Bureau Chief of the national staff in 1997. In 2006, he turned down the ombudsman position at the Washington Post out of disinterest. After Deborah Howell stepped down in 2008 he accepted the second offer telling himself, “why not try it?”

After applying and interviewing for an entry-level political reporter position at the Associated Press Philip Elliott BSJ ’03 received a phone call on a Saturday offering a position with AP for the 2006 midterms. He moved to Washington, D.C. the following Monday from his job at Evansville Courier & Press. Two years later, Elliott became AP’s White House reporter under the Obama administration.

“So much of this business is about connections and networks,” said Elliott over email. (A former professor at Ohio University [Douglass K. Daniel] opened the door for this job.)

The stepping stones to these major publication companies are a mixture of credibility, hard work, networking, and pure luck. On top of excelling in their professions, both Alexander and Elliott were linked to the right people, at the right place, at the right time. But after holding these positions for several years, what has it been like to work for what many journalists perceive as ‘dream publications’?

Alexander was ombudsman during a “tumultuous time” for the Post. The publication restructured its entire newsroom, integrated its online and print operations, and lost an estimated 40 million dollars in 2009 (“my best guess,” comments Alexander) that resulted in downsizing its staff.

“Not a bad time to be an ombudsman,” said Alexander in chuckles, “because if you love the news business and you want to be a part of really seeing this transformation take place … boy it was all in front of me.”

Now a ‘former’ ombudsman (he recently stepped down after his two-year term) he said that a challenge was constantly communicating with complaints from readers “who don’t trust you,” having to break the complaints to the newsroom asking them what they have to say, and being completely independent of the newspaper make the position “the most lonely job you can possibly ever have.” But that doesn’t mean there weren’t positives.

“The great part is that it’s challenging work, but really interesting work,” said Alexander.

As for Elliott, he recently shifted back to political coverage for AP. But Elliott considers his former White House reporter position both “an honor and a challenge.”

“There’s nothing quite like walking to the Northwest Gate of the White House, showing the bright red press badge and being waved through by uniformed Secret Service folks who know you by sight,” Elliott said.

Elliott got the White House beat after developing a relationship with his sources on the campaign trail. The AP reporter frequently wrote about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which included a story about Cindy McCain and her daughter Meghan actively taking a stance in opposition and their appearance in the NOH8 ads.

Elliot said that the White House beat was a job he held at the right time. “Covering the beginning of the Obama administration was a great chance to see history in the making,” Elliott said. “Not only is President Obama a transformational figure, he captured the attention and imagination of a nation looking to turn the page on an unpopular presidency.”

Elliott said that the election of Obama was a “once-a career news event,” adding that he was “very, very lucky” to get the White House beat in 2008 at the age of 27. Although he agrees that his position is “high-profile,” he said the rise of news sites has made it easier for young journalists to get to his level.

“… News organizations such as Huffington Post and Real Clear Politics are working with a staff just as young, just as hungry and, often, just as scoop-focused,” he said. “The proliferation of news sites has made it, in some ways, easier for young journalists to work at this level very quickly and prove themselves.”

Both Alexander and Elliott, although on different points in their career, think they have not reached the pinacle of their careers. Complacency in their jobs, to them, means it’s time to go in a new direction.

“The day I feel I can do any job in my sleep, the day I don’t wake up panicked that I’m missing something, the day I don’t find myself cursing about and, often, at a source who leaked a nugget to someone not me … that’s the day I need a new challenge,” Elliott said.

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