Warren H. Phillips died Friday, May 10, at the age of 92.
He is not a household name to the average person, but to many journalists and “shakers and movers” across the country, he was well-known in his day.
Both an editorial and an op-ed piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal paid tribute to Phillips, who, as much as anybody, built the Journal into the great national newspaper that it is today.
The news about his death rang a bell in my mind because I own a book he wrote in 2012 called “Newspaperman,” with the subtitle of “Inside the News Business at The Wall Street Journal.” Phillips, who graduated from Queens College in New York with a degree in economics but also took some writing courses at Columbia University, started out as a copyreader at the WSJ in 1947.
He became a reporter who spent a lot of time with overseas assignments, including Turkey, Greece, Germany, England and Spain. Later, he became foreign editor, managing editor, executive editor and publisher, and by the time he retired in 1991, he was chairman of the board.
In his book he talks about a job interview he had with Wall Street Journal officials as he was moving up the ladder. They asked him if he had gone back to school to get “continuing education.” His answer was that journalism is continuing education in itself. Phillips cited the fact that he had interviewed heads of state, politicians and business leaders of many countries. This was a learning experience that most people don’t get when they opt for more classroom work.
My first reaction when I read that was, “I wish I had thought of that when I was interviewing for jobs back in the early 2000s.” I agree wholeheartedly with Phillips’ assessment.
Although I have not interviewed presidential candidates and foreign leaders like Phillips did, I have interviewed representatives of just about every profession that anybody could think of. These include business owners and CEOs of companies of all sizes, politicians, school administrators and teachers, lawyers, ministers, hospital CEOs and other health care executives, financial advisers, coaches, inventors, farmers, and law enforcement and emergency workers.
In all, I estimate that I have interviewed a couple thousand people.
When I was editor of The Packer, the national newspaper of the fruit and vegetable industry, for 18 years, I traveled to 41 states and 10 foreign countries. I interviewed many importers and exporters, so I learned how international trade works.
Someone might respond, “Well, that’s not exactly rocket science.” But hey, I’ve even interviewed a rocket scientist.
The point is that every time we journalists conduct an interview, we get an education. It’s something that not everyone gets to experience, and I have been fortunate to be able to interview so many interesting people over the years.
When I was trying to find a job along about 2003, companies were asking me whether I had gone back to school. It sort of made me embarrassed about working 40 years without earning an advanced degree. At the time, I could have used Phillips’ take on the question.
There is certainly nothing wrong with going back to get advanced degrees; in fact, it is essential for certain occupations and greatly beneficial for others. On the other hand, basically I get “schooled” every day when I talk with people about their work or about an experience they had.
I was always taught that a journalist should have a “working knowledge” of many subjects, including history, economics and philosophy, among others. I always joke that I know a little about everything — just enough to be dangerous — but not a lot about anything. Another one of my running jokes over the years has been, “I’ve never really done anything, I’ve just reported on what other people have done.”
I’ve discovered that there are several keys to being a good interviewer, including being curious and genuinely interested in the interviewee and subject you are approaching. You need to be a good listener and realize that the spotlight is on the person being interviewed, not the one doing the interview.
I’ve done so many interviews that I never need to go in with a list of questions. I can’t remember the last time I had notes on what questions I wanted to ask. I’ve been reasonably successful at listening while at the same time thinking about what my next question will be. In many cases, of course, the interviewee’s answer to a question leads to another question or an expansion of the topic.
Although Warren Phillips was many times more successful than I, I nevertheless am proud that I am a “Newspaperman” through and through.