"Being consistently good doesn't get you very far. You need to be occasionally amazing." That's advice from Laura Meckler, national education writer at the Washington Post. Her career is living proof, and by being good and occasionally amazing she rose up the journalism ladder to some of the most prestigious newspapers in the U.S., including a coveted stint as White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
In this episode, Laura describes her journey, beginning with a pivotal role as Editor in Chief of her college newspaper. The road to prominence had a series of challenges and curves along the way, but she persevered and leveraged each of her experiences to continually move forward.
Her path is an excellent reminder that most careers don't follow a straight line. The highs, lows, triumphs and failures are all part of the career development process, and they build strength and resilience. How did Laura do it? Listen to this "Breaking News" episode to hear her remarkable story.
Laura Meckler is national education writer at the Washington Post, where she covers education across the country and federal education policy. She came to the Post from The Wall Street Journal, where she covered the White House, three presidential races, changing American demographics, immigration and health care. Before that, she worked for The Associated Press Washington bureau, writing about health and social policy and politics.
Before coming to Washington, Laura covered state government in Columbus, Ohio. She got her start covering everything from schools and cops to the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame festival at The Repository in Canton, Ohio, about 50 miles south of her hometown of Cleveland.
Laura graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, and serves as vice president of the board that oversees her college newspaper. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 2003-04, and in 1999, she won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, a prize given to journalists under age 35, for her coverage of organ donation and transplantation issues. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two sons.
Beth Davies, host: Suppose you have one of the most coveted positions in your field. Do you hold onto it and stay there forever having achieved what others dream of achieving or do you move on? And if so, how and when do you make this move?
Welcome to Career Curves, where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are today. I'm your host Beth Davies and I am thrilled to have award-winning journalist, Laura Meckler, join me for this episode.
Currently, Laura is national education writer for the Washington Post, where she covers national trends and federal policy. Before joining the Post, she held a role many journalists aspire to: White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. This put her at presidential inaugurations, in the White House briefing room, and on Air Force One traveling around the world with the president of the United States.
So how did she navigate her career to become a White House correspondent and what made her decide to move on from this role? Laura is here to take us through her story.
Laura Meckler, guest: Thank you so much for having me.
Beth: I want to start by acknowledging, Laura, that you and I have known each other for quite a long time. In fact, I think I have known you since the day you were born.
Laura: I was going to say, I don't think there's been a time I haven't known you.
Beth: Yes, our parents were the best of friends and yet there's so much I don't know about you because our lives just took different paths. So, I am thrilled to have you here and to get to know you in a way that I've never known you before.
I want to start by talking about what you're doing now as national education writer for the Washington Post. Obviously, you write articles, it's a newspaper, but I have a feeling you do a lot more than just write. If I followed you around for a few days, what would I see you doing? What does a journalist do?
Laura: Well, we do a lot of different things. There are a lot of different steps that you go into, from an idea for a story until a story actually is produced, but what you would really see me doing is gathering string for ideas, reading emails, reading other people's stories, looking at Twitter, reading reports, talking to people. A lot of what I do is figuring out what's out there and what we should be thinking about. What should we be writing about? What sort of news can we break? So, I'm sort of out there as a vacuum, trying to absorb the world that I'm responsible for covering.
That's on its highest level. You'd also see me talking to sources, talking to colleagues. You might see me meeting people for coffee or meeting people for lunch. Before I had little kids, meeting people for drinks or maybe dinner. The idea to just touch base with people, develop and deepen relationships, and better understand what it is that they know so I can better bring those stories to people.
You would see me, after I'd gathered all the information, especially if it's a complicated story, organizing that information, reading my own notes, circling things that I think are important or putting them in bold if it's electronic. Depending on how much time and how complex the story is, I might create an outline for that story for myself with a list of the main points I want to hit, and then I'll actually sit down to write. I'll spend some time editing my own work.
And then I deal a lot with just logistics: arranging photos, working with graphics, headlines, dealing with my editors who are editing my story. That sort of thing.
Beth: What is it about this work that appeals to you?
Laura: I love doing this. It is such a window on the world. It's an excuse to ask people questions about just about anything. I have the ability to really see things that you wouldn't otherwise see. In the normal times, I would travel places and go and watch the world. And that's just a great privilege to be able to see what's happening for myself, and then try to translate that.
I'm just very curious about the world and this is a great business to be in if you want to ask people questions because you have the license to ask just about anything.
Beth: I think I've learned that in my role here as a podcast host. I've got all this permission to ask people questions that I wouldn't otherwise ask and sometimes I wonder why I don't just ask questions like that? But it absolutely falls to role. You have permission in certain roles to be able to ask questions.
Laura: Totally. And also, I'll just add, in terms of what I really enjoy about my work is that the culture of a newsroom is just a great place. The people are really smart. They're funny. People banter around ideas and gossip, and it's just a great environment to be in.
Beth: Let's find out how you got to where you are. Tell me about your childhood and how you think it might have shaped the person you are today and the career that you have.
Laura: Well, both my parents were lawyers. They were both unhappy lawyers, I should say. I think my dad's first job was working for your dad and maybe he was happy then, but by the time I came along, he wasn't really that happy as a lawyer. Neither was my mom. So, I saw that as an example of doing something that is a job you're supposed to like, but maybe you don't.
I didn't know I wanted to be a journalist. I didn't even have an idea about being a journalist until maybe high school, the thought was planted in my head, but it was really once I got to college, and I joined my college newspaper that I realized how much I liked it.
As a child, I was interested in government. I was interested in issues and public policy, but I found myself less drawn to activism and more drawn to wanting to explain and understand what was happening on both sides of controversial issues.
I think partly when I got to college, it was also that culture piece. The culture of a newsroom in college is similar too, and I got there and just felt like I was home.
Beth: Let's talk then about college. Where did you go to school and what did you major in?
Laura: I went to Washington University in St. Louis. They don't have a journalism program and I wasn't really looking for a journalism program, partly because I didn't really know I wanted to be a journalist when I was applying to colleges. And I don't know if this was as conscious at the time or if I've just come to realize it since then, but journalism, isn't really a discipline. It's not something that you need to study per se. It's really a trade that you learn to do.
One of the pieces of advice I give to young people who are interested in journalism is you can certainly go to journalism school and there's nothing wrong with that and they they'll teach you a lot, but you can also learn a lot by doing. By being on your college newspaper, by getting internships, by being out there doing the craft of journalism.
So, when I got to college, I majored in political science and international development, but really what I majored in was the college paper where I became editor in chief, and I spent far more time. Perhaps this was not the smartest move, but far more time at the newspaper than I did on my schoolwork.
Beth: It sounds like being involved on the school newspaper and becoming editor in chief really was the pivotal experience that shaped and launched the career that you have today. How did you get involved in the school newspaper? What even attracted you to it?
Laura: The seed had been planted about journalism in high school when I was just talking to somebody who mentioned that he was interested in maybe being a journalist and I thought, "Oh, maybe I should think about being a journalist." It was just like that. I wasn't that involved with my high school newspaper. I wrote a few articles for them, but I wasn't on the staff.
And then I got to college and it's a new chance to reset. And they're always looking, constantly recruiting writers, so getting on the paper was not difficult. It was probably in the spring of my freshman year when I was writing stories, taking assignments.
At the time, the way it worked, you would get an assignment over the phone. You would work on it. You would type your story and then just drop it off. It wasn't electronic. You would just drop it off in this basket in the newsroom. And whenever you did that, there were always people buzzing around.
I would, at first, just drop my article off and then run out the door because I was like, "I don't really belong here." But, for whatever reason, there was a time in spring of my freshman year, when I ended up hanging out there and talking with people about a story I was working on. I got involved with an older reporter there -- "older," like maybe two years older than me. Seems older at the time -- about something we were going to work on together.
At one point he said, "Okay, we're going to go interview the chancellor." He had set up an interview with the chancellor of the university. It was just exciting. This idea that we were taking on the big issues of the campus was so heady. This idea that I'm engaging in the central issues of what this university is about and I'm bringing these stories to students and helping to drive the conversation.
So, it was those few moments my spring of my freshman year, when I just felt like this is just such an exciting place to be.
Beth: What was your plan for after graduation?
Laura: My plan was to get a job at a newspaper or an internship that summer. I had applied for some internships. I did not get one for that summer.
I went with a friend to Europe for the summer, which was great. But then when I got back, my plan was to work for a newspaper and I applied to small to medium-sized newspapers over a large swath of the US, basically from the Midwest into the Northeast. I don't know how many places I sent letters and clips to. A bunch of places. I got a couple bites and I ended up getting hired just an hour south of where I grew up. I grew up, as you know, in Cleveland and my first job was in Canton, Ohio.
So, my goal coming out of college was to get a job at a newspaper.
Beth: The level of rejection that you were facing with all of these nos or lack of response is something I think a lot of people experience. Do you remember what your coping strategy was? Or do you have any advice for people who are hearing a lot of rejection while they're looking for a yes?
Laura: I got a lot of nos, but I wasn't really invested in getting hired at any one of these particular places. I just wanted a job. I figured this is just going to be for a short time, then I'll move to a bigger paper and then to a bigger paper. That was sort of my plan: to leapfrog up the journalism food chain and it didn't really matter to me that much where it was. Even though I only got maybe two offers and 48 rejections, it felt okay then. But later on, I definitely felt that when I was trying to get out of Canton.
So, I went to Canton, I was there for a few years and then I was like, "Okay, I'm ready to leave," and I was trying desperately to get out of Canton. I was applying all over the country and just getting a lot of rejections.
Beth: Why were you at this point now wanting to leave?
Laura: For starters, being single, young 20-something in Canton, Ohio when you're not from Canton, Ohio, it was not necessarily the best social life available. I had friends at the paper -- who are still my lifelong friends who I cherish -- and I got great opportunities in Canton, but I was just ready to move on.
Beth: But then, like you said, you were finding that to be a hard move and a hard transition to make. So, tell me how that finally happened.
Laura: Well, first I'll answer a previous question you asked about this, which was how do you deal with it? And the way I tried to deal with it was just to focus on doing good work.
One thing I realized was that when you're applying for jobs being consistently good, doesn't get you very far. You need to be occasionally amazing. You need a few clips that are going to blow people away. So, I tried to focus on doing projects and doing stuff that I thought was harder edged and making a real impact, and try to, as much as I could, reject assignments that were never going to be great. Everybody has to do those to some extent, but I really tried to keep my eyes on the prize of doing really outstanding work. That, at the end of the day, is the answer. And it's always been the answer.
I've faced this a few times. I mean, there are people whose careers just kind of rocket up, but mine was not that way. I really scratched my way up this food chain. I always tried to refocus myself on "just do good work and eventually it'll be okay."
Ultimately, how did I get out? I decided to take the AP test, which is the Associated Press test, which is what you take to get to join the Associated Press. I thought, "Well, I'm not getting hired at these newspapers." I was desperate to work at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, my hometown newspaper. They would not hire me. I was desperate to work at the Akron Beacon Journal. It was a great paper back then. Just kept having interviews with them and never getting hired. All these places I tried. I literally still have these -- I think I might've thrown them away finally -- a stack of rejection letters. So, I thought, "Well, maybe the AP. Maybe that would be a way to do it."
So, I took the AP test. And, in the meantime, when I was awaiting the results of that, a job opened up in Columbus covering the Statehouse for 17 papers around the state. I thought, "Well, none of these papers is really any bigger than the one I'm at now -- in fact, most of them were smaller -- but this is state government, so this is a step forward and maybe I just need to get unstuck."
So, I took that job even though it wasn't really what I had in mind. I thought this will open up new windows for me by doing this.
Beth: T sounds like your plan in taking this move was for it to be next. Maybe it was going to be short term, but just to help get you unstuck. What was the experience? How did it turn out?
Laura: Well, it turned into an unmitigated disaster. That's what actually happened. It was a two-person bureau. The bureau chief, the other reporter, was a nice guy, but terrible manager. Just an absolute horror. He was very controlling. He did not want to hear any ideas that weren't his own. He would assign stories to me, and I would go and investigate them and find out in some cases that there really wasn't anything there. But "Hey, I have this other idea instead," and he's like, "No, I already promised the first story. So, you have to do that."
It was a very difficult relationship. In retrospect, I can see there was probably some insecurity on his part and probably also on my part maybe a little bit of headstrongness like, "I know what I'm doing. You can't tell me what to do," so I'm sure I played a role in it. I'm not exactly a shrinking violet, but it was a bad match, let's put it that way.
After six months, I had a six-month review. I knew that it wasn't going to go well, because I could see he was irritated with me. I decided whatever he said in this review, I would tell him I was going to think about it over the weekend. This is advice I'd been given from one of my old bosses: just respond in writing on Monday.
And he gave me this review, which was very laudatory for my writing and my reporting and my initiative, but it had this other score for my alleged attitude, which he gave me the lowest score possible. And then he gave me the lowest score possible overall, even though my writing and reporting were the highest scores. So clearly, he was out to get me.
I was just floored by this review, and I said I'd like to think about it and write over the weekend. And he said, "No, you're going to respond right now and that will determine whether you have a job on Monday."
I was just completely freaked out. There were all sorts of things in this review that were just patently false. I decided, "Okay, I'm in survival mode now. This is about just keeping this job until I can find another one," and so I wrote my response essentially disputing the things I thought were just outright false and promising to do better, essentially. I felt like I said what I had to say, and he said, "Okay, let's try again."
So, okay, I got past that. Of course, now I'm in outright panic because I need another job. Well, I'm trying to get a job from the same people who hadn't hired me six months ago. So, I'm freaking out about this.
It just so happens a few months earlier, I was at the statewide journalism awards lunch -- I was there for something I had won when I was working in Canton -- and I ran into the assistant bureau chief at the AP bureau in Columbus. He mentioned to me, "You did really well on the test."
I said, "Well, I just moved to Columbus for this other job."
He's like, "Okay, well, just FYI, we're going to have an opening in about six months if you're interested or if you know anyone let me know." I just filed that away.
So then, when this review happened, I called him and I said, "That job still available?" and he said, "Well, yeah, it is, but it's a temporary job. Someone is on maternity leave, and it's only guaranteed for eight months."
So, I was thinking, what do I do? Do I take this AP job that's guaranteed for eight months, or do I keep this job, which I could lose tomorrow? So, I asked the editor of the paper in Canton, who I relied on for advice. I called him up and said, "What do you think I should do?"
And he said, "At the AP, there are no temporary jobs if you're good. You should take this job. You'll be fine."
So, then I called my boss in Columbus' boss, who was the Washington bureau chief, and let him know exactly what was going on. I said, "I have another job offer and unless things are going to change around here, I'm quitting."
And he basically is like, "Oh my God, what am I going to do? I'm hundreds of miles away." Then he says, "I think you should take the job. This is clearly not working," and he was 100% right. So, I took the job.
I showed up at the AP bureau in Columbus and I have a list of 12 story ideas that I had not been allowed to write when I had been at my previous job. I just sat down with them and had a meeting with the news editor and the assistant bureau chief, and I said, "Here are my ideas," and I start going through them. Their mouths were like agape.
They said, "We like all of these ideas, just go for it. Start with this one," and I just started cranking them out, and it was just a great, really positive experience there.
Then, as it turns out, about four or five months later, there was a job posting for a job in Washington for the AP and I had always wanted to be in Washington. So, I said, "Can I apply for this?
And they said, "Well, a temporary applying for Washington? That's unheard of."
And I said, "Well, just so they know who I am, I'm not right out of college. I've already, at this point, had five years of experience in journalism.
They said, "Well, let me check."
So, my bureau chief in Columbus called the bureau chief in Washington. "Can this woman apply?" They're like, "Sure, she could apply."
Around that time, the bureau chief in Columbus sat me down and said, "Listen, everybody in the AP eventually achieves their goals," and he tells me about this guy who had started in the Columbus bureau on the night desk editing night copy. Then he moved to the day desk. Then he became a reporter in Columbus. Then he got to Cleveland and was the correspondent. Then he got to Washington as the Ohio regional reporter. Then he went onto the national staff as the overnight. Then he went onto the night desk. Then you went onto the day desk. Now he's a reporter.
I thought, "Oh my God, I'm going to be dead before I go through all of that," and this job I was applying for was just as a straight up reporter on the national staff in Washington.
So anyway, I applied. They brought me to DC for an interview. I was completely blown away by this place. This really was the big time. The AP Washington bureau is a big deal place, and I was so impressed by it.
I didn't think I had gotten the job, but I thought, "Well, I had a trip to Washington for a few days."
Came back, walked into the Columbus office, and the news editor, a wonderful woman named Beth Grace, she pulled me aside and said, "What did you say to them?
I said, "What?"
She said, "What did you say? And then she says, "You got the job. Now go to the bathroom right now." She ordered me to the bathroom. "You're not supposed to know this."
She ordered me to go to the bathroom so I wouldn't react in a way that was obvious to the people in the room, which I did, and then just jumped around. That was really my big break.
The reason I tell this whole story here is since it seems what this podcast is about. I look back on my career and I think the worst thing that ever happened to me career-wise was going to that job where I was miserable. I'm in this two-person bureau and it was just a terrible experience. But if I hadn't been there, I never would have taken a temp job with the AP. And if I hadn't taken that temp job, I never would've gotten that job in DC. So, it all worked out. You just never really know what is going to be good or bad.
Beth: It's such a great story, so thank you for sharing and that wisdom from it is exactly what we're trying to share. It's so spot on.
But I am curious, thinking about the person at the bureau who said, "What did you say? What did you do?" Was there anything that you can think of that you did during that interview in Washington that made such a strong impression.
Laura: No! Probably the advice I talked about earlier, which is that you just need to show your best work. I had sent my clips from Canton. Also, when I got to the AP in Columbus, I just immediately started trying to do ambitious stories and so I had those under my belt to talk about.
I don't know. This is now a long time ago, so I don't really remember the details of the interview other than I know who did interview me. I just remember trying to emphasize the best of the work I had done, but that's what anybody would do, so I don't really have any specific wisdom about that.
Beth: How did you build your career during the time that you were with the AP?
Laura: I was hired to be the night general assignment reporter and that meant that I would just do whatever was needed on that particular night. One time I actually went and covered a big fundraising event, a big fancy ball essentially, and was interviewing Barbara Walters, which sounds impressive until I tell you the next thing that happened, which was that Princess Diana came over to us to say hello to Barbara Walters. I was right next to Princess Diana. So sometimes it was stuff like that.
Other times, we would find out what the big newspapers were reporting around 10 or 11 o'clock at night and we would get copies of their stories. This was before the internet was what it is today, and we would sometimes have to try to match those stories. So, I would know nothing about something. I would read the story and then I would be calling someone to find out if this is true, and then I'd be writing about it. All within an hour, which was pretty crazy. Writing with any authority about something that I literally knew nothing about an hour earlier.
So that's what I did first and that was in 1996. As that year came to an end, it was the beginning of the second term of the Clinton administration, and that's the time when newsrooms often shuffle their assignments. I was hoping to get a beat. A beat that was open, and that I was very interested in, was covering the Department of Health and Human Services, which was essentially health and welfare policy.
I was given that beat and that really was how I built my career -- covering healthcare and welfare reform, the implementation of the big 1996 Welfare Reform Bill. I kept with those topics for a while. I did politics in presidential years. Like in the 2000 campaign, I covered political advertising, so I put my toe into covering politics there too. So, I sort of built it that way.
Beth: At some point, you decide to leave the AP. Tell me about that. Why did you decide to leave this prestigious organization?
Laura: Well, I wanted to do more enterprise reporting as opposed to daily news reporting. I wanted to come up with my own story ideas and tell a story that wasn't going to be told if I didn't take it on. You could do that at the AP, but it was very hard to get newspapers to run those stories. We were very dependent, especially then, on getting our members which are the newspapers to use the stories. You couldn't get AP stories directly unless a member printed them. I
it was frustrating to me that I would write a story, but it was kind of a tree falling in the forest and nobody heard it. At AP, the bread and butter is breaking news, really breaking news, like getting ahead of something. You could work really hard and be the first person to report something and then everybody else would have it 10 minutes later. I called that the 10-minute scoop. Today. it's more probably a two-minute scoop.
It's kind of exciting at the time, but it's a little bit of a sugar high. It doesn't necessarily leave you feeling satisfied at the end of the year. I remember this great day. I was on Sunday duty. It was during the anthrax attacks if you remember that after 911. I was covering that bioterrorism and the anthrax attacks that were happening all over. People were receiving letters that had anthrax in them, and they were opening them, and getting very sick. This was happening a lot, and this is near the beginning of it.
I was there on a Sunday morning. We got word that the mayor of Washington DC was holding a press conference a couple hours later. I called that the spokesperson for the health department. We knew there were two postal workers who were in the hospital, but we didn't know what the deal was with them. I called him and asked, "What's the mayor going to say at the press conference?"
And he told me that one or both of these postal workers was gravely ill. I remember that was the phrase, "gravely ill." And I said, "What's your name? And how do you spell it?"
And he's like, "No, no, no, you can't quote me. You have to quote my boss."
I said, "Have your boss call me within 45 seconds and I'll co quote him instead of you."
And he said, "Okay," and he did it! The boss called me and repeated the comment and we put out a story. Almost instantly, we had that story filed. It probably posted at maybe 9:58 and at 10:00 AM, CBS's Face the Nation went on and Bob Schieffer opened the show with, "The Associated Press is reporting that two postal workers are gravely ill."
My boss was sitting right next to me, saw this whole thing happen, and it was just such a high to do that. But, at the end of the day, who remembers that I had this little scoop before anybody else? Ultimately, the mayor had the press conference, and everybody found out.
So, I was just kind of wanting something more than that.
Beth: I get it, Laura, because you've been saying all along that one of the things you learned early on was that you've got to have the big stories that you can share with other people so that they can see who you really are and can really highlight your work. And it sounds like you're doing these breaking news things that may get picked up, but not necessarily building that bank of work that you like to have to be proud of.
Laura: Right, exactly. I did do some of that at AP and they did let me do that. I mean, this is not a knock on the AP at all. They let me do those and they do value that. It was hard to get the newspapers to run on those stories, and so I was just wanted to work for a big newspaper.
In the meantime, I did a year-long fellowship called the Nieman Fellowship, which lets you go to Harvard for a year and audit classes and be in this community with other journalists for a year. It's sort of like an intellectual vacation. It was an amazing experience.
When that was over, I went back to the AP, but I knew that I was hoping to get to a big newspaper.
Beth: How did you get that fellowship?
Laura: I applied. It was the second time I applied. I applied the year previous and had not been chosen. So, I refined my application and talked to people about what it was. I talked to the curators of the program about what were they looking for and tried to think more deeply about what I wanted to say. I think my application improved a lot, so I got it the second time.
Beth: What happens to your job at the AP when you're doing a fellowship like that? Are they still paying you or is it that you're taking a leave from your job? And then, you know you're going to have your job to go back to? How does that piece work?
Laura: Yes. In order to apply your employer has to promise to take you back, hold your job for you. At least that was the case at the time. I don't know if it's changed at all given the difficult state of journalism these days, but those were the rules then.
And you get a stipend from the fellowship. I did not get my salary during that time, but it worked out roughly close.
Beth: So, when it was over though, you went back to the AP, but at the same time, you knew that for you personally, your time at the AP needed to be winding down. How did you manage that next transition and where did you go?
Laura: This is another serendipity. The day I found out that I had gotten the Nieman Fellowship was also the day that our congressional press passes expired. I was on the Hill to get mine renewed, I ran into a friend of mine, told her the news, and she said, "Oh, you should talk to John Harwood."
You may know him. Now, he's a CNN reporter; at the time he worked for the Wall Street Journal. And she said, "He was a Nieman fellow, and he loved his experience. You should talk to him."
I didn't know him. I knew who he was, but I did not know him. Anyway. I get in line to get my press pass renewed and he's in line in front of me. So, I start chatting with him about it and he's so excited for me about the Nieman. And he says to me, "What do you want to do when it's over?"
I said, "Well, I'd love to work for a big paper."
And he said, "Call me when you're done," and he was so generous to me. He hooked me up with bureau chiefs all over the city to talk to. Big newspapers. And I talked to several people and ultimately, he introduced me to his boss and his friend, the bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal.
It was interesting because I had had other experiences that just seem to languish. I talked to the New York Times, and it never quite seemed to be the right fit there. And I just felt so frustrated, like I was always almost there and not getting hired. Then at the Journal, I had this great conversation with the bureau chief, named Jerry Seib. Truly wonderful and absolutely first-rate boss and journalist, and we had a great conversation and he said, "I don't have any openings now about I'll keep you in mind."
I said, "Okay."
And then, not that long after that, I got an email from John Harwood and he said, I remember the email, all it said was, "How picky are you about beats?"
I said, "Hmm, what do you have in mind?" The job that was open was covering transportation. It was not anything I knew anything about or necessarily had any aspiration to cover, but I thought this is a way in, and Jerry told me, "Come and do this, and I fully expect to move you to healthcare maybe in a year or so."
I said, "Okay, sure." So, I took that job.
Beth: How did you communicate that back to AP?
Laura: Well, they got word of it through the grapevine and I'm not exactly sure how. An assistant bureau chief there pulled me into a room, closed the door, and told me for what seemed like an hour -- I don't know how long it was -- all the reasons why I shouldn't take this job, but I realized I really needed to take this job.
The Wall Street Journal is an excellent newspaper and I just thought this is really going to help me take my career to the next level. I felt like I had done all that I really could do at the AP, and I just was ready for something else.
So, by the time I actually went to tell my boss, she already knew.
Beth: The promise was that you would do transportation for a year with the idea of ultimately moving you back into health and human services. Did that happen?
Laura: It did. I did transportation for a year, maybe year and a half, and then I moved back to healthcare in particular. I got to spend a lot of that time writing about organ transplantation, which was an absolute thrill for me. I did some stories I absolutely loved that year. So, Jerry was 100% true to his promise.
Beth: At some point you started working on presidential campaigns and ultimately, as I mentioned at the start of our interview, you did get to be a White House correspondent. How did that happen? How did you go from healthcare to presidential coverage and campaigns?
Laura: At the end of 2007, the campaign was underway, and they needed more people to cover the campaign. So, Jerry asked me if I was interested and I said, "Sure,” I ended up being assigned to the Republican race, so I covered the Republican primary -- not from the beginning, but from about late 2007 -- and ultimately that transitioned me on to covering the McCain campaign, which I did for the rest of that year.
I had some experience covering politics, but not a lot. Then when that ended, when the 2008 campaign ended, the White House reporters who had covered the Bush administration were leaving that beat. We had hired a reporter to cover the White House and they wanted a second one.
I think I indicated I was interested. The bureau chief was different at the time. I don't remember if he came to me or if I came to him first, but in any case, he asked me if I wanted to do it. I think I had a choice between doing that and covering healthcare, because we knew healthcare was going to be a big issue because Obama, as we know, was planning on doing that.
I just decided that this White House assignment was something I couldn't turn down, that it would be just an amazing experience. It was not something I had been laying my whole career for, this is the only thing I want to do. It's just something that kind of came up organically and was just a great opportunity.
Beth: Being a White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, for those of us not doing that role, that sounds quite glamorous, quite amazing. What's it? What's it really like? What were the joys, what were the challenges of this role for you?
Laura: It is a very hard job. You have to be on top of a lot of different things at the same time. There are a lot of excellent reporters covering the White House. It is very competitive. A lot of people chasing the same little bits of news, trying to break that news. So, you had to persuade people to give things to you before they would give them to others. Try to talk to people outside the White House to try to find out what was happening inside the White House.
It was a very, very challenging, hard job. I never could put my phone down because you just never knew when something was happening. When somebody was asking a question, when an editor needed something, when somebody else had broken something and we had to match it. You were kind of always on.
It is not particularly glamorous; I hate to say it. There are some cool things and I'll share a few of them, but it really is a lot. If you're say on a domestic travel trip or let's say the president's going to Kansas City to talk about his healthcare plan, what does that look like? And let's just say you're in the pool, so you're in a small group of reporters traveling with the president.
So, you have to get to Andrews Air Force Base at a very early hour of the day. The one ironclad rule is the President does not wait for the press, so the press is always assembled well ahead of the President.
So, you're there so early, and then you're waiting. Waiting once you get there, and you get screened and cleared. Now you're on Air Force One and you're waiting for the President to show up. Maybe that's 45 minutes later. You go. He comes, he walks out, might wave, walks onto the plane. Occasionally being on the plane, the President might come back and chat with the press, but that was not an everyday occurrence by any means.
Fly to a place. Get on a bus. Go to a high school gymnasium. Hear a speech that you've probably already heard before. Maybe there'll be some news in it. Maybe there won't. There used to be, covering the White House, that you would have time to write your story before everyone picked up and left, but now since everybody can be online all the time, they don't really build in a lot of filing time.
You're quickly writing your story. You're watching. You try to interview a few people maybe in the audience. And then you're back on the bus or the vans, headed back, desperately trying to finish your story while you're in the van, hoping to press "send" before the plane takes off.
So, it's high pressure and, at the end of the day, that is not even necessarily that a great a story. It's not a story that's going to be in your "look what I did this year" sort of things.
Is it glamorous? Yes, it's cool to be on Air Force One. The food is really good.
Is it fun when the President comes back and chit chats? Yeah, sure. That's fun. I'm not going to lie, but there's a lot more waking up early, being in vans, under pressure, listening to the same speech over and over. That's more common.
Beth: Covering politics, you're often in situations where your personal views are quite different than the candidates or the politicians that you're covering. What strategies do you use to deal with this?
Laura: This is not really something that I find difficult. I have personal opinions like everybody else, but I think maybe that's why I'm drawn to this work. I really want to hear what other people have to say. What all sides have to say. I want my stories to reflect the point of view of everybody and want people on all sides of an issue to read the story and say, "Yes, you put in my best argument. You gave my voice. The best thing I had to say is reflected in there." And I don't really find that to be a huge personal challenge.
Beth: So, while you're covering the White House, and in this crazy world that you were just describing, you decided to start a family.
Laura: I'd been trying to get pregnant for a little while and it was not the easiest thing. I found out that I was pregnant right after the 2008 campaign ended and my older kiddo was born in August of 2009. I did disclose this before I actually took the beat, like, "FYI, I'm pregnant." I did take leave from August until the end of that year.
Beth: How did you manage these two aspects of your life?
Laura: This was hard. It was really hard to have a young child and do this. I managed it because I have a husband who is great and who is home from work reliably at six o'clock. We had great childcare. But it was still very challenging to juggle all of this stuff. It could be a lot.
Beth: You did decide to leave the Wall Street Journal and covering the White House. Tell me about that decision. Why did you decide it was time to move on from that role and the Wall Street Journal?
Laura: Well, those were two separate steps.
First, at the end of the 2012 campaign, I knew I wanted to leave the White House beat. I had been doing it for four years. There are some people who are amazing White House reporters who have done it for many years, over many terms and God bless them. They are doing fantastic work.
I did not think I did my best work as a journalist in that role. I say it was my greatest journalistic experience, but not my greatest journalism. There are a few stories I think are stand out that I still am really proud of from that time, but it wasn't like I felt like I need to keep doing this.
Plus, I was pregnant with a second kid who was born in February. 13. So I knew I was getting two kids, so that was going to be really hard. People say a White House correspondent is a great job to have had. And I agree.
So, I moved on to a beat covering immigration and demographics immediately after the White House.
Then in 2015, I was asked to come back onto politics and they, again, needed more people. So, I was brought back on in 2015 and assigned to the Clinton campaign. So, I covered Hillary Clinton campaign for almost two years.
And then that ended, and I went back to immigration at the Journal, which was now the first two years of the Trump administration. So, immigration was a very, very, very busy story.
Beth: It was, in fact, one of THE stories. Why did you decide to leave the Journal and go to the Post at this point?
Laura: Well, there were a lot of reasons for it. The Journal is wonderful paper. I really respect the people there. It's a very heavily edited paper and sometimes it felt a little oppressive, like you couldn't really write there. At least I felt that way sometimes.
Also, there were very strict rules about story lengths. They want short stories and maybe that's what readers want, but I want to write for readers who want longer stories. I wanted the ability to really give a story what it needed.
I was also very interested in social policy and issues of race, and that is not something that was in the core coverage for the Journal.
I just felt like I had a great run there and I was just ready for to try something new.
Beth: Going into the Post, you went in to cover education. How has the experience now been for you a couple of years in?
Laura: I'll start by saying, and I think this was underlying your question, I went from high profile, big news job to lower profile. I think some people might wonder why would you do that? Why would you go from immigration to education? Or from politics to education?
The reason is because I saw this as an opportunity to write about really some of the issues that are core to the American experience today. What I decided to do after getting myself oriented on the beat was I spent my first full year at the Post working on a series of stories about school integration and segregation. It started out with a story I wanted to write about my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and its long-term work towards racial integration in housing and in schools and the struggle to make that promise real today and where that's falling short.
I brought that story with me, and I knew I was going to write that for the Post, but I ended up building out a whole series around it, where we did a big data analysis about where is school integration today? And we learned that there are actually far more children in school with kids of other races than ever before because of the migration, mostly Latino students, out to smaller towns.
We did a story about a Brooklyn middle school program, where they are diversifying their middle schools. I followed two kids as they ended up going to opposite schools than what you might have expected. White girl from a wealthy family and a Latino boy who was going to a very elite middle school.
So, I got to do the kinds of stories that were really satisfying to me. And, as it turns out, my story about Shaker was so satisfying to me some people asked if I had ever thought about turning it into a book. I decided that that was something I was interested in doing. And so over the last year, I prepared a proposal and I ended up getting a book deal to do this as a book about Shaker and its history and its present, which is really exciting to me.
I have ended up with some news this year because the American schools shut down as anyone with kids will have noticed. But really this beat has afforded me the opportunities that I was hoping for, which was to step back a little and write about issues that are really core to what's happening in this country right now.
Beth: One of the things I'm learning from your story is that in this field of journalism, there are almost these two camps, almost like some people who are doing reporting and others who are doing the longer-form story journalism. And it sounds like you are more drawn to, and find more gratification in, those longer stories. Is that a fair characterization?
Laura: I don't think there's two neat buckets. I think a lot of reporters do both and I do both, but yes, I am drawn to trying to do more enterprise reporting, but I like both. I really enjoy both. I like having a balance.
Beth: What advice would you have for anybody considering a career in journalism?
Laura: My advice would be -- and it's a hard time because regional and local journalism has been decimated and that worries me a lot -- but my advice would be work for your college newspaper. Get internships. Think ambitiously. Do big stories. And if it's something that you really want, that you're really interested in, just keep knocking on the door and keep showing that you could do it.
And when you can seek out advice from people. Show people your stories. Find somebody who you respect, and if you can get to them, say, "What did you think of the story?" Ask for a candid read and then work to implement those ideas.
So, it's hard, but I think the key is to just do it. And there are opportunities. There are opportunities out there, but it's not something where you can just go get a journalism degree and then expect to get a job. You have to actually really work and show that this is something you can do and that you want.
Beth: All right, Laura, let's head into the lightning round. I've got my four final questions for you.
The first one is what would you say is the smartest career move you ever made whether intentionally or accidentally?
Laura: Well, the smartest thing really was joining the Wall Street Journal because the Wall Street Journal taught me how to frame a story and write an ambitious story in a way that I did not understand beforehand. So that's where I really feel like I truly went up a level, learning from the people at the journal.
Although the luckiest thing was working for this jerk, who ended up getting me to the AP.
Beth: If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Laura: Just one? I don't know. I don't see a do-over in the course of my career. There are a hundred things I would do differently, but there isn't one big career move that I feel would have been different.
I wish I could have gotten a job more quickly out of Canton. I mean, that was frustrating. I wish I could have gotten to the Wall Street Journal more quickly, without struggling. But it all worked out.
Beth: What's one piece of career advice that you wish you could go back and give to your younger self.
Laura: It'll all work out. Just keep yourself focused. Don't be so insecure.
Beth: And how do you define success for yourself?
Laura: I think it's doing work where I feel like I'm growing and taking on things that are more ambitious and important to me. That's really what success is for me. Like I could get another beat tomorrow and it could be great depending on what it is. I don't need to only cover one type of story as long as I feel like I'm challenging myself and doing something that matters, then I feel like I'm succeeding.
Beth: I wish I could reach across Zoom and give you a big hug right now. So, Laura, I have so enjoyed getting to know you in this kind of way and thank you for sharing your story with us.
Laura: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. This was fun.