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Interview with Bennett L. Steelman, September 14, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Bennett L. Steelman, September 14, 2007
September 14, 2007
Ben Steelman is a columnist and feature writer for the Wilmington Star-News. In this interview, Steelman discusses his educational and professional background, his literary influences, his love of film, and the demands on and qualities of a successful journalist.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Steelman, Bennett L. Interviewer: Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview: 9/14/2007 Series: SENC Writers Length 58 minutes

[crew talk]

Rodrigues: My name is Carmen Rodrigues. Today is Friday September 14, 2007. We're at the Randall Library in the Special Collections Department. This interview is being conducted for the Oral History Project. I am here with Ben Steelman. He is a columnist and feature writer for Wilmington Star-News. His weekly columns include "Book Notes" and "Ben On Film." Thank you, Ben.

Ben Steelman: Thank you, ma'am.

Rodrigues: You're a journalist and you have quite an extensive history in the field of journalism. I wanted to start from the beginning. Take us back to when you first got started and you discovered your love of writing and then how you knew you wanted to become a journalist.

Ben Steelman: Well it sort of didn't dawn on me immediately. As long ago as the third grade I was doing little handwritten newspapers for the classes I was in. My first publication which I thought of was the Weekly Universe, a version of The Daily Planet. Not many people wanted it. Anyway, I played on student papers in high school and in college. At Chapel Hill David Brinkley's son Joel, who was the City Editor of The Daily Tar Heel, hired me essentially as a feature writer to write about campus landmarks and odd little side notes about Chapel Hill. I did a feature on the Davy Popper [ph?] fork, which is the tree under which William R. Davy tied up his horse and decided that there was going to be a university right here. And also on the fact that Mr. Ackland, the benefactor of Chapel Hill's Art Museum, is actually buried in the building. That was specified under his will. He was originally going to give it to Duke but Duke didn't want to put up with him, so being a public school we were less choosy. Anyway, originally at the time I also wrote for some weekly entertainment publications, sort of like what Encore is in Wilmington now. At the time I kind of looked down on journalism. What I really wanted to be was a historian. But the year I graduated, in 1976, the University of California Berkeley had turned out more PhDs than there were job openings, basically in any college or community college in the United States, so I switched over to Law School for about a year. At this point John Grisham hadn't published but I figured I wanted to become someone like John Grisham. Could wear a white suit, file deeds in some small county seat and write great novels in my spare time. But the law professors had other ideas for me. And basically after about a year we sort of mutually decided that we'd have an amicable separation. So I was looking for work and I was basically about to become a manager trainee at Family Dollar when a classified ad appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer that the newspaper at Wilmington needed copy editors. And anyway so I was willing to show up and they were desperately in need of live bodies. And after I demonstrated that I could read and write and flashed a few clippings of what I'd written at The Tar Heel in front of them, they were willing to take me on. So I spent a few years on the copy desk, which means basically that you manage the Associated Press wire, cut the articles to fit, write headlines and do page design which was not my strong suit, and eventually they figured this out. Originally they needed somebody to write movie reviews. The original movie reviewer had quit to move to a bigger newspaper. And one of the sportswriters tried out. Unfortunately he gave a rather graphic play-by-play of what exactly happened with John Hurt's indigestion in the movie "Alien." So they were looking for somebody else and said "Hey if you can drive out and catch a matinee at one of the theatres on Friday and write it up before you start work," which was about 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. Copiers generally work from about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon until about midnight or 1:00 in the morning. And "Hey we'll pay for your ticket and give you $5.00." And I said "Hey, sure!" and that's how that started. And eventually I transferred over to being a feature writer. And except for an interval from about 1991 to 1998 when I was the assistant editorial page editor, which meant that I did the page layouts, edited the letters to the editor and filled in any of the editorials that my boss didn't want to write. Basically I've been a feature writer ever since.

Rodrigues: Wow, that's a long journey to getting to this point, but I wanted to go back and ask you more about your earlier education, your time, at Chapel Hill. Were you a journalism major?

Ben Steelman: No, I was not. I was a history major.

Rodrigues: And then from there you went on to get your...

Ben Steelman: And I haven't had another degree. I spent one year in law school. I've taken graduate history courses here and there but otherwise I'm basically uneducated and unqualified. But no, as I said I hung around The Tar Heel and I guess I absorbed a good deal of stuff by osmosis, by being around a lot of J students. There was a particularly strong class there. David Sushakino [ph?] who went on to become a very distinguished foreign correspondent, and Vernon Loeb who now works I believe for the Los Angeles Times, Dan Fesperman who became a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and basically is, you know, a pretty distinguished novelist as well. I mean these guys were all hanging around. We played pinball together and argued. Anyway, I sort of hung around on the fringes of this sort of exciting group and was basically the sort of most mediocre of the bunch. But, here we go.

Rodrigues: Why do you think it was that you clearly, from a young age, had a strong love for writing, and an inclination toward it? Then, you went to study history and later on your life seemed to develop in a pattern that led you back to it, and you said it kind of surprised you. Why do you think that was?

Ben Steelman: Probably a lack of self-knowledge. Anyway, no? I mean, I was basically the kid out of The Far Side-- the fat kid with the striped t-shirt and the milk bottle glasses and the little flat-top haircut, not a jock-- which in a small North Carolina town basically means you were socially pond scum. But I basically picked up a love of writing and a love of reading at an early age. My mom, bless her heart, was smart enough to figure out that books about bunnies and ducks were not going to thrill me very much as early readers. So she went down to the public library and pulled all these great things about rocket ships and knights in armor and everything, and got me hooked. And Louisburg is a small town, the library was two blocks away, run by the two spinster Allen sisters. And I'd just go in there and just drive them crazy. Anyway, so good reading can lead to good writing. Or average writing or whatever.

Rodrigues: You just commonly find a lot of writers who are like,"I didn't realize that's where I'd end up," and that's what they become. I'm always curious about what prevents writers from thinking of writing as a possible career. You also hear of a lot of writers who end up going to law school and then becoming writers afterward, so I was curious about that connection. You write columns and features, I want to talk a little bit about your columns right now. You have the book column "Book Notes." You're also blogging about that online. Tell me a little bit about that column and what appeals to it, and then perhaps some of the books that you love.

Ben Steelman: Well, a lot of that is due to UNCW. My feature time sort of corresponded with an era when UNCW built up a strong writing program, originally under a poet by the name of Charles Fort, who was here in the 80s and early 90s, who I think is-- then he moved onto Kansas or Kansas State, I think. Then, of course, Phillip Gerard came to town in the early 90s. He sort of took over the creative writing program when it was this corner of the English department. Very soon, there was a small core of really good writers coming out of UNCW, both on the faculty and then from their students. And it became sort of a little regional mecca, and there was a lot of good stuff to write about. From the start, we decided we wanted a book page at one of the makeovers in the 1980s, and I sort of gravitated into that position. I originally sort of snuck book reviews in when I was laying out the entertainment pages back as a copy editor, and we tried to figure out a direction. I figured that for mainstream literature, everyone was getting the national magazines or the NY Times Book Review or something. So I pretty early decided that we were going to have a regional focus, North Carolina writers and southern writers. And then, of course, quite a few of the North Carolina writers started winding up here. Particularly, a pretty amazing milestone was when Clyde Edgerton decided to move down here, first as a visiting professor and then on a permanent basis. And so, before long, the creative writing program was set up as a separate department, and their Masters people were placing national manuscripts left and right, and there's a lot to write about.

Rodrigues: It does seem to be quite, well, this environment, North Carolina, in particular, seems to be a strong place for writers to congregate and to create.

Ben Steelman: Yeah.

Rodrigues: Throughout the years, as you've been writing your book reviews and also dealing with writers, what do you feel North Carolina's place is in the creation of great literary works?

Ben Steelman: Mm, well, originally there wasn't very much, because we were a state without any major urban centers, and generally you need to have a city with a concentrated audience if you're going to sell enough books for people to support themselves. In 1920, of course, H.L. Mencken wrote the famous essay "Sahara the Bowzart," which started off with that wonderful quote from a rather bad Virginia poet named J. Gordon Coogler, "Alas for the South her books are much fewer. She never was much for literature." But the irony was, of course, that right about that time with industrialization, you had the sudden awakening of the southern literary renaissance, the National Agrarians, William Faulkner out of Mississippi, and Eudora Welty, all the folks around the National Agrarian movement, notably Robert Penn Warren and of course, Thomas Wolfe out of Asheville. And partly it comes out of the old southern storyteller tradition, Roy Blount, Jr., talks about this. We're not great idea people, but we love to express ourselves in stories. Someone once said that southern literature comes down to three old ladies on a porch talking about what happened to grandmama, and going off on that for about two hours, but then, of course, literature is also a matter of discontent. I have the oyster theory of literary creation. An oyster has an irritant inside its membrane so it forms a pearl around it. And basically, I think, literature is essentially a response to problems or discontent, like for example, alienation in the modern world. And North Carolina and the south have gone through rather wrenching industrialization. We've gone through a lot of social change, including the modern civil rights movement for better or for worse. And basically, people had their lives turned around, and that's when literature happens.

Rodrigues: Great literature. I wanted to just quickly continue on with the columns, and talking about your movie columns. How do you feel about feature films? What draws you to writing this particular column? Is it a side passion of yours?

Ben Steelman: Well, I was always a movie buff. I mean a chap at-- I can still remember going down to the Lewisburg Theater in Lewisburg in 1968 to watch Stanley Kubrick's "2001." I used to love monster movies and space operas and Flash Gordon and that sort of thing. And Lewisburg, as you might know, has a little Methodist Junior College there. And some of the long-haired students were sitting in the back of the theater, too. They were bringing all of these odd little implements that I didn't recognize. But I noticed at some point-- I was sitting near the front of the theater, they were in the back-- and I suddenly noticed there was this kind of peculiar odor wafting through the theater, sort of like burnt hemp. And after a while I got really, really hungry, but anyway, that's sort of where it dawned on me much later that the same movie can say different things to different people. For me, it was just an exciting space opera and apparently for the folks in back, it was a metaphor for opening the doors of perception or as an alternate to technology, or just getting high, I don't know. But anyway, Chapel Hill, oh gosh, the student union had Friday and Saturday night movies, really great stuff, that you could get into free with your ID. And the great Ingmar Bergman movies, that's where I discovered the Kurosawa Samurai movies and everything. And anyway, I took the one basic introduction to film course there, which was terrific. Once again, this is about 1975-1976. And like all introduction to film courses it eventually shows "Citizen Kane." It was the first time I'd ever seen it. I was real-- I might have seen parts of it on television, but it was the first time I had ever seen it straight through. And I remember I was sitting on the aisle, the classroom was, shall we say, a tad more crowded than usual. And this little undergraduate girl comes in, sits down on the floor right beside me and sort of tugs on my sleeve and says, "Is that Tania's grandfather?" Now, you'll remember, at this point, this was right when Patty Hearst was kidnapped and had Stockholm syndrome and adopted the revolutionary adage and she started calling herself Tania for a while, until she was liberated and not among the people who got shot up. But anyway, that was strange. Anyway, so I was a film junkie from way back, and basically it gradually dawned on me that the purely artist side of me-- movies can tell you all sorts of things about the culture that you're in and what's happening. For example, my undergraduate years were at the tail end of the Nixon and Ford administrations when movies like "China Syndrome" were coming out, and "Missing" with Jack Lemmon and you could pretty well tell that the next election was going to the democrats. But then, by the time I was working in the late 70s, you were getting the movies like "Rambo" and "Red Dawn" and you could all of a sudden tell that there was going to be a shift in another direction. Hollywood reads the election returns, just like the Supreme Court does.

Rodrigues: So do you think currently, there are movies that are coming out that are gearing us up for this upcoming election season?

Ben Steelman: Well, it's rather odd to notice that they're all-- that there's usually about-- because new movies take about two or three years to make, there's usually a two or three year drag time, and it's going to be very interesting to observe all of the movies this fall that are dealing with Afghanistan and the war on terror. I mean we've got "In the Valley of Elah" coming out, "Rendition," and they sort of take a rather critical review of them. Obviously, whoever runs these studios thinks there's going to be lots of people who want to watch for this and might agree with the filmmakers' viewpoints. So let's just save this tape for about a year-and-a-half and see what happens.

Rodrigues: It should be interesting to look back and find out.

Ben Steelman: Yes.

Rodrigues: What are some of your favorite films?

Ben Steelman: I have a sweet tooth for Stanley Kubrick. "2001" has always been a favorite of mine, and also the one that came right after that, Barry Lyndon, which no one remembers. That was his 18th century movie with Ryan O'Neal looking very sad and dreamy, anyway, a really good under-rated movie. Let's see, most of Ridley Scott, particularly "Blade Runner," John Ford's "The Searchers" and "Eight and a Half" by Fellini, my first Ingmar Bergman movie, "Wild Strawberries." Anyway, so.

Rodrigues: In addition to having the weekly columns and dealing with the films and books, you also have your blog that's online.

Ben Steelman: Yeah, that's relatively new, just this year.

Rodrigues: How do you feel the internet is changing writing for journalists?

Ben Steelman: Well, to a certain extent, it's very liberating. A man named A.J. Liebling once said that-- years ago that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those rich enough to own one. That's no longer the case. Now, everybody basically can become their own movie publisher and the public forum has just expanded exponentially. It's great because as one UNCW professor used to say, ideas are like noses, everyone has-- "Opinions are like noses. Everybody has one." But it's sort of creating little practical problems for us in the business because basically as a result of the internet, a lot of our traditional financial base, things like the classified ads, for example, are altering in very basic ways, or disappearing, or readjusting, which is a little bit unnerving, because news coverage, particularly sending someone over to Iran or Afghanistan or to various parts of the world that we don't know yet who are going to be important to us is a very expensive proposition, and there's some question about whether we are going to have the wherewithal to do the job as well as we can. Now, you're talking about writing. The internet is still kind of gelling as an institution. One thing that's very obvious is that it's a great place for blowing off steam intermittently. I'm not sure it does as well on the editing job. It's more likely to be a medium, I would guess, for the Whitmans or the Wolfs who can do great 4,000 word monologues right off the top of their heads, and less for the wonderful precision writers like the E.B. Whites, who go through 32 drafts or something. It's going to be harder for those people to be-- for the latter class of writer to be nurtured in the future, I think. But anyway, it's still very early and it's hard to say where things are going.

Rodrigues: Do you find that particularly on your blog, do you get more of an immediate response from your readers, to that versus, say, your columns?

Ben Steelman: It's possible. The problem is, so far, I've only logged three responses in all to any of my blog notices, partly because a lot of this stuff tends to be PSA type of material. I remember one time, right at the first, the blog really launched approximately about the time that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" has hit bookstores, and I tried to get an online discussion started, like "Now that Harry's gone, what's going to be the next big fad?" And I got one rather tart letter, a rather tart message back "I don't go for this. It's all just a way for authors to make money." Well, yes, but anyway, and that was as far as that went. I've gotten one thank you from a 15-year old writer who was very, very grateful that I noted one of her books, and that's been about it.

Rodrigues: What's your response like when it comes to your columns? Do you get letters in the mail?

Ben Steelman: We get a small, steady trickle. I mean, lots of the old, traditional thank you notes. The one thing that sort of strikes me as unusual is the amount of spam email you get. Apparently, there are people who have spybots or something on their computer systems where they will look up anything that appears anywhere on the net with a key word in it. Like, I wrote a story about two mothers dealing with Autism who had just written a book of advice for parents. And since then I've been getting about, it seems like three dozen emails a day from this lady in-- I think she's in Michigan who basically is devoted to the proposition that Autism is caused by mercury in vaccines, and that there's all this doctor conspiracy to hide this information from people, et cetera, and so forth. And she keeps sending them and sending them, and doesn't give up. And another odd thing, I wrote a story the other day about a cookbook for tailgate parties in which the author mentioned that people are also tailgating now at NASCAR events and the Iditarod, the sled dog race in Alaska. Well, that's in about paragraph eight or nine of a rather obscure story. But the next morning, my email box is filled with all these emails from people protesting the fact that the Iditarod had been mentioned at all since it's basically an atrocity that maltreats sled dogs for all these reasons which they proceeded to enumerate at great length, and there were about 24 of these messages all in a row from basically the same three servers. But it's very strange. Anyway...

Rodrigues: Wow, so that's coming from a server that's just generating this as the key words pop up?

Ben Steelman: Yeah.

Rodrigues: How do you deal with after you've written a story, and particularly in your feature writing? Let's talk about your feature writing. It's definitely got to be a different process from preparing to write a book review or a film review. Can you tell us first a little bit about the difference just in that process of preparing yourself to sit down and write a feature article versus the work that you do in your columns?

Ben Steelman: Well, for one thing, you start off having to talk to human beings. Feature stories fall into certain specific categories, the personality profile, the sort of person that reads a trend story, the consumer review, all those various things. Basically, sometimes you originate the idea, sometimes the editor hands it to you. You have a little brainstorm mission-- session where you figure out what the article is going to be about and where it is going. You go out, you interview your sources, collect the information, probably do an internet search in there in the meantime to check back sources, then comes that awful moment when you have to write the first sentence, "It was a long and stormy night," or "Melinda Shepherd [ph?] was a young mother who got tired to death one day when her two-year-old turned over his Cheerios one time too often in the minivan. And she fussed and fussed, and why there couldn't be a spill-proof bowl like they have sippy cups?" Well, it turns out that Melinda's husband works for Corning, and he's an engineer, and he comes up with a gravity balanced bowl within a bowl, and he goes out and works up a prototype, and the next thing you know, he get on this TV reality show that's about developing new products, and the Shepherd family becomes TV stars on PBS and their little invention is about to go into Bed, Bath and Beyond stores nationwide.

Rodrigues: True story?

Ben Steelman: True story. It was in the paper yesterday.

Rodrigues: That's great. So do you enjoy finding these little quirky stories?

Ben Steelman: Yeah. Sometimes they find you.

Rodrigues: And did this particular story find you?

Ben Steelman: Yeah.

Rodrigues: And you said the hardest part is writing that first line.

Ben Steelman: Yes.

Rodrigues: How long do you struggle with the first line in comparison to the rest of the writing process?

Ben Steelman: Well, sometimes it just sort of dawns on you. (coughs) Journalist writing is getting away from the dear-old inverted pyramid formula, but there are multiple ways to tell the story. There's sort of the nice, wonderful, long meandering New Yorker style where you start off with-- I guess if it's John McPhee, you start off with a young geologist walking through the hills with his little mini pick and chopping off a sample of rock. And you spin from there into a whole discussion of plate tectonics, and the rise of mountains over four million years or whatever. But it depends on the amount of space you have, which unfortunately, another side part of the-- effect of the internet is we don't have as much as we used to. So, do you like tell the nice meandering opening? Do you start with "How does plate tectonics impact the average UNCW student? Is a mountain going to arise over by Kenan Hall, disrupting student traffic patterns?" Or do you use another entry? There's about, if you go to some, there's like about 26 different ways you can lead off a story, and I can't even remember one of them right off the top of my head right now.

Rodrigues: So, really, the struggle with that first line is really not only determining what those actual words are going to be, but how are you going to frame and set the course of the entire story?

Ben Steelman: Yeah. There are supposedly two types of writers in journalism. One, are the sorts who have this wonderful outline that they've fixed out in advance and then there are what are known as the pluggers, which guess I fall in the latter category. You get that first sentence done and then you figure out where everything else goes underneath it, and sometimes you take a wrong path and you have to go back and erase and retrace your steps or something.

Rodrigues: When you plug like that, do you create that first line and then you start plugging in, has it basically become a puzzle where certain sections appear earlier than others? Do you sometimes know "I'm going to put this quote down here, this will be my ending," and there are great gaps in between and then you continue plugging in?

Ben Steelman: Well, I always have big problems with my endings. Generally, the rule is best quotes go near the front, since you have to grab their attention and keep it going. And then, it depends on your order whether you're going to tell the story chronologically, whether you're going to discuss Issue A and how it leads into Issue B, or whatever.

Rodrigues: You've been doing this for over 20 years, is that correct?

Ben Steelman: Well, 30 years in December, they've been paying me for it.

Rodrigues: So, for 30 years. How, as far as the process goes, when you first started, when they first handed you, when you had the previous experience at Chapel Hill, but coming to work for a newspaper where you realize this is going to be your career, from that moment that they handed you that first movie review to now, how has your process changed and become more sophisticated, or more efficient?

Ben Steelman: Mostly by experience, I feel like I'm able to-- I don't have to dawdle around as much. I've learned a bunch of, I guess, subconscious shortcuts along the way. I hope I can still occasionally break out of the mold and try something different or original with it. Actually, the process has not changed that much.

Rodrigues: (coughs) Excuse me. Has it become quicker for you, perhaps?

Ben Steelman: Well, most of the time, yes.

Rodrigues: A lot of writers, particular young writers, struggle to meet deadlines. And being in the field that you are in, it has to essentially be a lot about meeting your deadlines, there's no other choice, I'm sure. How does it feel to work underneath a deadline? Does that change your process? Does it make you more efficient? Does it ever create writers block for you?

Ben Steelman: Well, it's an adrenaline rush for one thing. There's the old famous Samuel Johnson quote "It's certainly not amazing that a condemned criminal can write a whole book in two weeks, because hanging concentrates the mind enormously." When you've got the deadline, you learn to work. And again, it gives you the impedance to push through to the end. The downside of this is that unless I have a deadline staring me in the face, often on other things I can't get very well focused, which is why I've written basically squat outside of the newspaper format.

Rodrigues: Do you ever want to write other things outside of the newspaper format? Do you feel like that's something you'll do later on in your career, or later when you have more time, or is this what you're enjoying and you're content with right now?

Ben Steelman: Well, it's what's paying me money. I mean probably every newspaper person has dreams. My old editor was convinced that half of the memory of the computer systems was being taken up by reporters' manuscript novels. And supposedly, back before there were computers every desk drawer in a newsroom had the typescript of a bad novel in one drawer.

Rodrigues: So, do you see a novel, or you also enjoy films. Have you ever thought about writing a film in your future?

Ben Steelman: Well, film making is a rather hard business to break into. Anyway, we just don't know what's going to happen.

Rodrigues: Okay. Tell us about your, take us through one of your days, perhaps a day where you have a deadline coming up. Start from the beginning and go all the way to the end. I'd like to get an idea of what a day in the life of a journalist is like.

Ben Steelman: Okay. Well, come in the office, open the mail, answer the email.

Rodrigues: What time do you arrive in the office normally?

Ben Steelman: Generally, my day seems to run from about 11:00 to 7:00. Anyway, it varies from day to day. The Sunday book material has to be in on Tuesdays, John Staton, the Currents editor would really like me to get my column done today-- my Currents column done today. I've been spending a lot of time in the public library lately researching a piece on the 140th anniversary of the newspaper. But at various times you do phone interviews, get out of the office to interview people, write around the fringes in your spare time.

Rodrigues: For the week, when it comes to, can you give us an idea of your deadlines for the week? On what days do your different deadlines fall?

Ben Steelman: As I said, I write in the features section. They generally print our stuff early because unlike sports, we don't have late games or such like or late election returns. My Sunday book material is due on, generally on the previous Tuesday, Currents material, the Thursday or Friday before the Thursday in which it's going to appear. Generally copy deadlines are ideally pegged to be about a week before the story would be appeared in print so that the editors can go through them. We can work out the art problems and just manage any holes that might appear. Of course, sometimes you're writing what's known as thought news, when you've covered something that's going to be in the paper the next day so obviously that's where there's a slightly more hurried process.

Rodrigues: Are there a lot of surprises during the week?

Ben Steelman: Always.

Rodrigues: Always? Just constant surprises?

Ben Steelman: Yeah.

Rodrigues: Who are some of your greatest influences?

Ben Steelman: Writers I've admired. A.J. Liebling who used to write for The New Yorker is a really, really great source. Some of the editors I've worked with over the years like Bill Smith who was managing editor of the Star-News when I first came on board basically did a lot of basic teaching. He was the one who first gave me the old line about "Never assume. It makes an ass out of you and me." But Jim Shumaker who was a long-time journalism professor at UNC Chapel Hill, was briefly the editorial page editor for the Star-News around 1980. It was a very important and useful manner. That's a fairly good list right there.

Rodrigues: With some of those that have been your mentors and your great influences, do you feel, yourself, that it's important for other writers to mentor younger writers?

Ben Steelman: There are whole courses of that offered in J schools, in journalism institutes like the Poynter Institute out of St. Petersburg, Florida. Newsrooms are trying to do a better job of that in general.

Rodrigues: With the new journalists that come in, the younger journalists?

Ben Steelman: Yeah. Well, in particular, since the Star-News is frequently an entry-level newspaper, most of our people are coming here, basically it's their first or second full-time job.

Rodrigues: Do you think there's a difference between every generation of journalists?

Ben Steelman: Well obviously there is, but sometimes the changes are a little hard to see. Like I know one of the things about the 60s was that virtually all the foreign correspondents had had military experience from the "good war" of the 50s or the 60s, whereas not all that many journalists have military backgrounds anymore, although there are certainly exceptions. How are things different now that people who grew up in the internet era are coming online? I really can't say yet, but you can tell little subtle geological shifts, I think.

Rodrigues: Do you feel a similar difference then, in your audience, in your readers changing as the time goes by? Do you ever find yourself having to reposition yourself to reach your core audience or to make adjustments in the way that you are presenting yourself as a journalist to continue to grow an audience?

Ben Steelman: Yeah. Well, we're always trying to grow audiences particularly in the newspaper business where we're faced with a grain demographic. Your generation, for some reason, did not get the newspaper habit and that scares the bejeebers out of us. But, Kevin Smith, in his last "Clerks" movie did a whole thing about how suddenly he's hit 35 and now advertisers no longer care about him. It hits particularly badly in movies where the primary audience tends to be in their 20s and younger, and so I'm basically their father's Oldsmobile. It sort of helps because I can actually remember the movies that they're remaking at the moment. But, in a way I guess I'm talking more now to people who rent the DVD rather than line up at the multiplex.

Rodrigues: With this generation coming up that has largely grown up on the internet and the immediate gratification of the internet, do you think that eventually-- not that newspapers will become obsolete, but paper versions of those newspapers will be greatly reduced or perhaps go completely online?

Ben Steelman: Well, we're already going online right now in process. I expect there will always be some sort of paper artifact out there. But already things are shrinking. I mean, it's only a matter of time before the TV listings disappear completely. Basically we still only print the stock quotes because elderly retirees would rather be scanning microscopic type with a magnifying glass than going online to check on what their mutual funds are doing. Again, the real problem, I think, is the net users' strong resistance to paid content. How are we going to get the income to support the news gathering process basically off of pop-up ads? Better minds than I are wrestling with these issues as we speak.

Rodrigues: It would seem like it would be quite a concern, though.

Ben Steelman: Yes. Well, you're getting quite an "Aprés moi le deluge," after me the Holocaust feeling like a lot of older reporters. Thank God I won't be around to see it or whatever. But I try to be a tad more optimistic, but sometimes it's hard.

Rodrigues: What advice, with all these changes that you've seen throughout the years and with all the experience that you have coming from a non-traditional background and then making a successful career in journalism, what advice would you give to a young writer who's thinking of taking this on as their career path?

Ben Steelman: Learn as many different languages as possible.

Rodrigues: Has that been something that's been an obstacle?

Ben Steelman: Well not for me but, I mean, the world's getting smaller, and obviously we're rapidly becoming a bi-lingual or possibly even tri-lingual nation. So obviously if you're going to ferret out interesting stories, read as much as possible, ask good questions.

Rodrigues: How important is it as a journalist to be a good listener?

Ben Steelman: Well, that's three quarters of the job.

Rodrigues: Is it something that comes natural?

Ben Steelman: It has to be trained. You have to learn the trick of not only listening what people are saying but what they aren't saying.

Rodrigues: And is the story in what they're not saying?

Ben Steelman: Very often. For example, what topic aren't they talking about, what is concerning them, body language queues, that sort of thing.

Rodrigues: Is writing as a journalist 50 percent the actual writing and then 50 percent the ability to observe and understand people?

Ben Steelman: Well that's typical of almost any-- that's essential to almost any kind of writing.

Rodrigues: Do you know something that the young writers are aware of or that they may not be aware of?

Ben Steelman: I don't understand your question.

Rodrigues: That observation is just as key as the actual art of writing?

Ben Steelman: Well basically what you have to remember is that your readers aren't that interested in you. You're a fairly dull individual. What's interesting is what you are seeing and what you are getting out into the world and going out and finding people like orchid poachers in Florida, or Taliban members in Afghanistan, or whomever. You are merely the catalyst. What's interesting is what you soak up and process. So keep an eye on the world around you. Observe what's there.

Rodrigues: So then is it their job to make sure that not only they're reading the newspaper, but that they're keeping up with all different types of literature and all different other types of mediums so they're aware of these changes?

Ben Steelman: Well that's basically it. Herb Gold who was a speech writer for Richard Nixon once made a point that a lot of the biggest changes that hit America in the Nixon years had nothing to do with what Nixon and his aides or even Congress were doing. I mean, women's liberation, the Stonewall riots and gay liberation, the shift in the youth culture, you have to be able to get outside of your comfort zone. A lot of our headaches in journalism now are trying to redefine our old beats like chasing the fire truck or sitting down and taking minutes at the town board meeting and getting out and finding the other little traces to how your community's changing. This can be frustrating sometimes because it seems like we're trying to reinvent the wheel every morning. But we're trying to be more sensitive to the, again, the changes that maybe people don't notice as well.

Rodrigues: Interesting. And for you, when it comes to your feature writing you said that sometimes the ideas are given to you and sometimes you come up with the ideas.

Ben Steelman: Right.

Rodrigues: What's exciting you right now about, what are you excited about writing right now in that arena of features?

Ben Steelman: Oh, I've got eight or nine projects percolating at any time of course. What I'd really like to do this semester is chase around and do a feature on how handicapped students are being mainstreamed into UNCW culture. I'm taking a history course over at Morton Hall three days a week and coming out here is giving me all sorts of story ideas.

Rodrigues: That's great. Well I want to thank you for your time. You've been a great guest to have and this is, again, Ben Steelman. He is a writer for The Star-News in Wilmington. Today is Friday, September 14, 2007. We're in the Randall Library in the Special Collections Department. My name is Carmen Rodrigues.

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