Jordan Friedman on Ben Bradlee and National History Day Competitions

Noodle Expert Jordan Friedman discusses what he'd like to learn from legendary newspaperman Ben Bradlee, why it's important for students to take a road trip across the country, and how the journalistic landscape has changed over the past few years.

Noodle Expert Jordan Friedman discusses what he'd like to learn from legendary newspaperman Ben Bradlee, why it's important for students to take a road trip across the country, and how the journalistic landscape has changed over the past few years.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would pick Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1965–1991, who was a recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. (In 2014, Bradlee died at age 93 of natural causes, according to his obituary on the Post's website.) Upon his death, President Obama released a statement saying, "He transformed The Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate and told stories that needed to be told." Bradlee's approaches to managing a renowned newspaper inspired many of his successors in the industry.

If Bradlee were my teacher, I would like to learn about his ability to innovate and focus on the future while also bringing about shorter-term changes that have an impact on the American people. Essentially, I would want to know about the most important lessons he learned throughout his tenure as the editor and what he would have done differently.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

People have told me throughout my life that it's normal to make mistakes — it happens to everyone. What's ultimately important isn't the mistake itself, but what you learn from the experience. As cliché as it sounds, this piece of advice has had a major impact on my life. For example, working on the student newspaper at Emory University, the other editors and I made plenty of mistakes — there's no denying that. At first, I would become upset with myself. But after a while, I came to recognize that making mistakes is part of being human. Now, any time I make a mistake, especially in my writing, I try not to get down on myself but instead ask: What could you have done differently, and how can you prevent this from happening again? To me, it has become essential to turn any piece of criticism or type of error into a learning experience.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I would advise a student to take a road trip across the country. There is so much to see across the United States, and getting out of your comfort zone and simply exploring can provide you with so much knowledge about American culture and the different people that make up our nation.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

In high school, a group of other students and I participated in the National History Day competition, enabling us to create historical exhibits, documentaries, performances, papers, or websites and then compete against students from other schools. Throughout high school, I successfully made it to the state level of the competition several times, but was repeatedly unable to accomplish my goal of advancing to nationals. I became disappointed with myself — I would spend months conducting research and constructing historical exhibits and then fail to make it all the way. But during my senior year, I joined forces with three of my peers who had also competed in NHD for years (but in the documentary category) and had, like me, made it to the state competition but not nationals. We put our heads together, spent months creating our project — a 10-minute video on the impact of the 1960 Kennedy–Nixon presidential debates — and then (finally) advanced to nationals, where we placed fifth. I achieved a goal that I had been striving for. From this experience, I learned about the importance of teamwork and perseverance. If you keep trying to accomplish a goal, you should used what you have learned from failed experiences to move forward, rather than look back with regret.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I've always loved writing. When I was little (before I could actually write words), I would draw letters in the air with my finger (according to my mom, at least). As I got a bit older, whenever a guest came to our house, the first question I always asked her was how to spell her name. So, once I reached high school, joining the student newspaper seemed a natural choice for me. I loved being a part of something that enabled me to use my passion for writing and editing while also becoming part of a community where everybody's actions contributed to a larger final product. Now, I am a writer and editor for a nonprofit in New York, where I help manage a blog and direct social media efforts, and I also freelance for different publications. I think that what is most interesting (and unexpected) to me is how much the media industry has changed in recent years. In the field I'm working in, I'm not only writing but also working to engage audiences online and becoming familiar with the realm of digital media. I think that this new focus on adapting to the digital age is what I found most interesting. In many ways, the job description of a "writer" or "journalist" has changed from a decade ago, drastically transforming itself as technology continues to advance.

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