Thirty Years in the Press
My first paid writing assignment
Today begins my 30th year in journalism. The article (not headline) pictured above, the first writing for which I was paid with money, was my idea. It was published 30 years ago today, beginning a career in journalism which continues with Autonomia.
Three reasons why I’m writing about myself
Most of my articles tend to be in-depth stories about culture and the arts, which started with this first article. Throughout 2023, I’ll re-examine my years in the press. Retrospection generally gets what I regard as an undeservedly bad reputation. I don’t write in reflection about my past with frequency, though I know that self-reflection about one’s prior actions, achievements and ideas can improve one’s introspection. I’m initiating this series (and started Heartstrings for the paid subscriber) for three reasons. First, I’m at the beginning of a later part of my writing career. Second, I’ve created Autonomia expressly as an experiment in the free press for readers who choose to subscribe to and pay for what I write. Third, during one of our last conversations, my friend, author and scholar, John David Lewis, whom I interviewed shortly before he died of complications from esophageal cancer, persuaded me that today’s writer, especially the Objectivist like me, ought to write more, not less, in first person.
Three points about the first paid article
Here, I want to identify the impetus, process and most important persons surrounding my first paid article. The article’s impetus, aptly, is a work of literature which guided me to a philosophy which saved and enriches my life.
The topic of my first paid writing is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. As a boy, I had discovered the 1943 novel about an architect, the journalist who loves him and the American newspaper that chronicles their works, lives and conflicts, on a bookshelf stacked with musty, old books. By the time I’d started working for a newspaper, The Fountainhead was 50 years old, an anniversary I pitched (with other ideas) to an editor as important. I told her that readers would be interested and that I could write a relevant, retrospective story about the bestselling novel. My editor, stereotypically tough-as-nails and strict with English, grammar and punctuation, agreed. My assignment for a small city newspaper was to find and interview local sources.
Fortunately, I already had most of them in mind. Besides local bookstores and a library, a young couple were friends and fellow Ayn Rand admirers. I remember choosing them as main sources because they both struck me as honest, hard-working and independent—virtues in Rand’s philosophy and novel. I asked the Midwestern couple, who’d come to suburban Los Angeles for the wife’s practice of medicine, for an interview. They both agreed. He worked as a landscape architect. She worked in an emergency room. I interviewed them at their downtown apartment.
Knowing that the popular novel and its radical theme were anathema to modern scholars, I anticipated some degree of hostility and contempt. Instead, everyone I interviewed was enthused. Each source became stimulated by my questions. Though I requested and was granted an interview with the Ayn Rand Institute’s director, who cooperated, he didn’t significantly add to my knowledge or the story. I wrote the article on a mainframe computer in the newsroom, filing the story with a function key.
The ink was long dry by the time I was paid. This was an another early lesson; making money by writing requires an extremely disproportionate expenditure of effort. At the time, I thought that, for a first assignment, it was pretty good for a general audience. Today, I think my article is interesting. Some might say it’s too long and maybe that’s true. For its time, I think the article challenges the status quo.
The husband went on to become this publication’s first guest writer earlier this year. The editor, who became a university English professor—with whom I was recently reunited—is sharper and more incisive now than she was in 1993. Readers did respond when they read my article. Many readers recalled reading The Fountainhead. Some wrote letters to the editor sharing their memories and thoughts. A local college drama teacher who read my article decided to stage a production of an Ayn Rand play and invited me to become the production’s dramaturge (which I did).
Another reader also took an interest in what I’d written. This reader was The Fountainhead author’s heir; he had received a copy of my article from an Ayn Rand scholar. Leonard Peikoff had previously written two books on philosophy and he had written the foreword to The Fountainhead’s new edition. I had read both of his books and I mention and quote Dr. Peikoff in the article. When I was told that he liked my story, I was thrilled. Peikoff’s response was a single-word review: “Excellent!”
Having previously attended, studied and listened to his courses and lectures, I was already an admirer. I reached out to thank him for his encouraging word. Later, he hired me to work on The Leonard Peikoff Show radio program, first as a radio station production assistant in the same small city, then as a researcher and writer at his home and office south of LA. Peikoff would read—and compliment—my critique of Letters of Ayn Rand (my newspaper review’s quoted on the back of the paperback edition). Eventually, I attended his wedding, introducing the newlyweds’ first dance, as well as his talks, including his last courses and lecture.
The article’s main source, editor and reader
I knew even upon publication that Dr. Peikoff’s review was too generous. His judgment of my writing would sharpen, becoming more critical. The same goes for Cynthia Takano, my editor who became a friend (she still edits my writing). Mr. and Dr. Goertzen still support my journalism—she patronized my health care advocacy and they are among Autonomia’s first paid subscribers—and our friendship thrives.
In retrospect about that retrospective writing assignment, I:
Cemented my bond with Randy and Gerri Goertzen. They trusted my ability then and now. They are private people who agreed to be interviewed in the press, which is a real compliment. Today, we visit, dine—we’ve been known to dance—and go to baseball games whenever we can. Their children, who are now adults, are testament to their parents’ rationality. Gerri’s a self-made businesswoman and doctor who, in the aftermath of ObamaCare, refuses to become what Ayn Rand called “the forgotten man of socialized medicine.” Randy’s still an artist—on landscapes such as baseball diamonds as well as on blank canvasses—and, together, they embody The Fountainhead’s happy ending as a new beginning.
Gained in Cynthia Takano an editor who edits—as against imposes upon—without giving reason to doubt her objectivity. Cynthia’s intelligent, driven, tenacious, astute and passionate; she neither gives nor lets up. Among today’s editors, this is an exceptional and extremely rare quality.
Marvel at Leonard Peikoff, the philosopher who remains the West’s foremost new intellectual in the philosophy which guides my journalism, writing and life—and can save the world. He chose to encourage me when I needed it most.
For the next 30 years, my articles would cover a range of topics and themes in media across the world. My book reviews and features allowed me to read, study and gain knowledge from—as well as meet and interview—old and new intellectuals while making a living. My essays for individual rights—contra national service, statism, “hate crime” laws, which I dubbed thought crime laws, censorship and socialized medicine—made readers aware of dissent. I became the first journalist to interview a child refugee from Communism—he’d escaped Cuba—who was forced out of America at gunpoint to return to slavery, foreshadowing America’s rapid decline.
My movie articles for a Hollywood website gained an audience, affording me a crucial transition into a new, technological age. My stories about athletics, art, industry, history, health care, politics, philosophy and the fundamental issues of our time are published, quoted, cited, hated, awarded and reprinted. I’m not the first journalist who is an Objectivist, though I’m among the earliest to come out as an Objectivist who still writes with independence for a general audience. A member of the Secret Service once told me I was the only freelance journalist to be credentialed for covering the nation’s two-party political conventions.
Mine became a bounty from that first paid assignment. This goes to the core of what I gained from writing the article: the conviction that the writer of ability ought and deserves to be paid. Ayn Rand never let go of soliciting the reader to pay for what one wants to read—Rand’s trader principle—neither in her book contracts nor her other writing, such as a column for the Los Angeles Times. Long after her novels became bestsellers, Ayn Rand published—make that self-published—periodical after periodical for the paying subscriber.
This is what I’ve been doing for 30 years. It’s a tough business. The reader who pays to read what the writer writes is rare. Paying a writer is a real compliment. Perhaps it is less widely understood that paying for what one reads is a real credit to the reader, too.
Before my 30 year-old article, I wrote for school newspapers, extra credit and the privilege of having a byline. My first paid writing marks the 50th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s story of individualism about a hero who refuses to compromise his principles. The Fountainhead is also an epic drama about culture, the arts and the free press—an original, brilliant and poetic saga of practicing artistry in communication—and I am proud that it’s my first paid reporting topic, not only because it concludes with what I have in mind for my future.
More than any Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead emphasizes the superiority of philosophy to the press. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead stands alone—alone in his thoughts, on a cliff, in private, in his act of defiance, in a court of law; alone in the deepest sense—and he stays selfish and single-minded throughout the pursuit of his happiness. After 30 years in the press, I still aim to do the same.