We need millions of Wlady Pleszczynskis
Part of my job at The College Fix is teaching college students who are interested in journalism how to do it.
This doesn’t involve a great deal of formal instruction. Instead it proceeds by way of assignments, questions, phone calls, emails, texts, shared documents. Maybe we’ll even meet in person one of these days.
Mentorship is a curious thing. Sometimes you seek it out, but sometimes it just finds you. That was the case with me, going on 20 years ago now, when I came to Washington DC for the first time.
I had been freelancing for the American Spectator, and had recently accidentally graduated from college. A brief stint with a Canadian magazine flamed out. Where to go next was a real puzzle.
Spectator long-time executive editor Wlady Pleszczynski contacted me. There was an assistant managing editor job open. He invited me to DC, on the magazine’s dime, to interview for it.
That’s how I came to DC the first time, and ended up staying for seven years.
During those DC years and after, I’ve done four or five stints at the Spectator. That first year was special, and a lot of what made it special was working with Wlady.
He taught me and others how to write to grab readers’ attention, and keep it.
For instance, take headlines: If there is a personality in the story, Wlady said, stick that personality in the headline, because that’s what readers actually care about. Also, from experience, he said Americans are not going to click on a title about Canada. So, if at all possible, don’t include that in that title.
And take the “I” out while you’re at it, he said. Even in first person accounts, use the word I sparingly, to respect the readers and narrow the narcissism. When you’ve written the article, he instructed, give it another pass and see how many I’s you can murder.
In those moments when we weren’t intensely focused on deadlines, Wlady told great stories from a life that started with his Polish immigrant parents in California and took him to Russia, Indiana, DC, and other points around the globe.
Wlady had worked with great and famous writers, actors, and movie directors. He’d met presidents and published a story that helped get one of those presidents impeached. However, those were not the things he preferred to talk about. He’d rather talk about his pets, his family, old movies, and the work that was in front of us.
That modeled an important lesson for me about the proper perspective, and maybe an important lesson about mentoring as well.
Wlady taking the time to mentor me was not a completely selfless act. I was working with him. He got good copy out of me for his troubles. But it’s also true that he went to far more trouble than he needed to, or than I could reasonably expect.
I’m thinking about Wlady now for reasons large and small.
The large one has to do with the latest crisis in education. This last school year in American public education is being referred to as a “lost year,” because of the lackluster results from COVID-disrupted learning. This is being felt by kids at every stage of K-12, and could very well result in a yawning skills gap for many students.
How to deal with this gap will be the subject of many proposals on a grand scale. On the individual level, many of today’s students who will be going out into the workforce in the next several years would surely benefit from millions of would-be Wladys stepping up and showing them how it’s done, and why.
The small reason to think about Wlady is that I miss him. Work will bring me to DC next week for the first time in many moons. Hopefully, we can get together, break bread, and remember old times, at the very least.
In this budding post-COVID world, it’s best to not take these opportunities for granted.
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