National Review’s John J. Miller is a mentor. He sees talent and helps young people see it in themselves. He knows how to foster their development and how to get hard work out of them. And so he is the perfect person to direct the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan. We talk about his classes, journalism, and more.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s unique about Hillsdale’s American Journalism program?
JOHN J. MILLER: A few things make us distinctive: an excellent campus newspaper, small classes with teachers who are professional writers, and courses that teach the best that has been thought and said in journalism. Here’s something unique: For the last several years, we’ve offered a one-credit course on “How to Write a Column” — taught on campus by Mark Steyn. Good luck finding that on another campus.
LOPEZ: Can you really teach journalism?
MILLER: The best teacher of journalism is journalism itself. What I mean by that is you learn journalism by doing journalism. It’s kind of like shop class in high school. You learn to use tools not by reading about tools in books, but by using tools to make things. Journalism is the same way. Students need to write bad articles before they write good ones. With time and practice, they get the hang of it. That’s why our campus paper is central to what we do. We teach a bit in the classroom, but even there writing is the focus.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it important to know your history, and to know literature and science to be a journalist?
MILLER: Yes. That’s why journalism at Hillsdale College is a minor and not a major. Students concentrate in a traditional academic discipline, such as biology, English, or history. We don’t lard up the curriculum with nonsense courses on “communication theory” or “media and society.”
LOPEZ: What’s the essential element you want students to walk away from the classroom with?
MILLER: After a journalism course, students should be better writers, knowing how to discover good stories and tell them by putting words in their proper order. I want so-so writers to become good writers and good writers to become great writers.
LOPEZ: What’s the goal of the program? To staff up a next generation of conservative media?
MILLER: We hope to prepare students for careers in the media. Some will want to work in the right-of-center media, but many have other ideas. We can help them all.
LOPEZ: What do you tell students about the future of journalism?
MILLER: I’m optimistic, despite all the worrying. Alumni of Hillsdale College are getting good jobs in journalism. We have two at National Review, Jillian Melchior and Betsy Woodruff. This summer, the Wall Street Journal hired Kate Bachelder, one of my top students, shortly after her graduation. Other recent graduates are working at papers in Nashville, Tenn., Marietta, Ga., and Santa Barbara, Calif. Even the new sports editor of the Hillsdale Daily News is one of ours. Having said all that, the media is always evolving. We don’t know if there will be newspapers a decade from now — but we can be pretty sure that the world will want content providers, whether they’re writing for websites, shooting videos for tablet users, or doing something we can’t yet imagine.
LOPEZ: Have you learned more from teaching or doing journalism?
MILLER: Doing it. Just this year, I’ve immersed myself in the ideas of Harry Jaffa, the recent politics of Kansas, and the historiography of the Haymarket riot — all for the sake of writing stories for National Review. For the Wall Street Journal, I’ve written on poetry, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. One of the joys of journalism is the chance to follow your curiosity.
LOPEZ: What’s wrong with American journalism?
MILLER: Partisanship that masquerades as objectivity. This isn’t the same thing as liberal media bias, which, when properly acknowledged and labeled, isn’t really a problem at all. Yet it’s a close cousin, and it infects reporting at every level. It’s two parts ignorance, one part legerdemain.
LOPEZ: What’s right with American journalism?
MILLER: It’s very good at producing information. We don’t always know how to make sense of it all, but journalism generates a glut of it.
LOPEZ: Who are your favorite journalists? Give us one living and one dead.
MILLER: My favorite journalist among the living is probably Andy Ferguson, who writes with both wit and depth — a rare combination. I always learn something from him, and often come away from his articles wishing that I had written them. So I’m both admiring and jealous. Among the dead, it has to be William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the magazine I love the most.
LOPEZ: How’s life in Michigan compared with D.C.?
MILLER: I enjoyed living in the D.C. area for nearly 20 years and wasn’t looking to leave when Hillsdale came calling. But now that I’m back in Michigan, which is where I’m from, I don’t miss D.C. at all. It’s better here. Sometimes I go entire days without thinking about the federal government. Also, I now get to watch the Tigers on Fox Sports Detroit.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.