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Guest Commentary: A great man’s footsteps

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Jim Snyder recently passed away at age 76. He was a giant in broadcast journalism, having had a distinguished career as vice president of news at Post-Newsweek Stations and news director at WDIV-TV in Detroit and WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in Washington. Before that he was the Washington producer for Walter Cronkite, and before that Jim served as a Westinghouse Broadcasting correspondent and executive.
The outpouring that followed his passing was anything but surprising, since Jim touched so many of us journalists along the way. There were tributes to Jim’s sense of fairness, his keen journalistic instincts and his ability to successfully compete in top markets.
Jim was my mentor, and I had the daunting task of succeeding him as vice president of news for Post-Newsweek. I say succeeding, not replacing, because Jim was irreplaceable. But I did spend a lot of time thinking about what exactly made Jim Snyder so effective and his impact so lasting.
I figured it couldn’t hurt my chances to be somewhat successful if I could emulate some of what made him so terrific.
I dentified eight traits that were key to Jim’s success. You didn’t have to have known Jim to benefit from these traits. I think of them as The Tao of Jim:
1. Never lose your childlike wonder
Jim was the single most curious person I ever met. Simply put, everything interested him. As a result, he would ask the most penetrating questions, which led him to all kinds of people and stories. This curiosity never diminished, not even after he became physically weaker.
2. Embrace good people
As longtime WUSA anchor Gordon Peterson said to me at Jim’s funeral in April, once Jim took you under his wing, you were there forever. Jim inspired loyalty by embracing you, holding you to the highest expectations, but never dropping you if and when you didn’t meet those expectations from time to time. While most people don’t have Jim’s unerring sense of discovering talented people, it is an art that can be cultivated if you work at it.
3. Talent alone isn’t enough
Jim loved talented people, but they better be good human beings as well or they wouldn’t last. In other words, life is too short to deal with jerks. For Jim, you had to have talent, but you had to be a good person with good values, too.
4. Listen more than you talk
Jim always had time for whatever career obsession or questions any of us had. He knew how to listen. He could let you go on for many minutes without him saying anything. That’s because he was intently listening to what you were saying, how you were saying it and what you might not be saying. His great judgment, in part, emanated from this quality.
5. Never compromise on the important stuff
Like the truth. Or the quest for objectivity. Or kindness. Or honesty. That’s not to say that Jim couldn’t play hardball. He was a fearless competitor. But he treated integrity-his and yours-as inviolate.
6. Family comes first
One time in the early 1980s, I was Jim’s executive producer in Detroit. The ratings were awful. Every step forward seemed to be followed by two steps back. One evening after a particularly aggravating newscast, I went into Jim’s office with what I wanted to do to fix things right away. “Go home, Mark,” he told me. “Go see your lovely wife and new baby. It’ll be here to be fixed tomorrow.” As tough a competitor as he was, Jim knew what truly came first in his life and the lives of his staff. Nothing was more important to Jim than his wife, Anne Marie, and his kids and grandkids.
7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Jim made some doozies, and he was as proud of them as he was of his far more numerous successes, since the mistakes represented risks that he took. He eschewed paint-by-the-numbers journalism, and he let his gut and his heart-not just his head-guide him.
8. Be optimistic
Don’t get me wrong, Jim could be grumpy and short. But he always saw through the current situation to the other side. He had an innate sense that good will prevail: good journalism, good talent, good people.
His basic optimism shone through all the days of his life.
I could go on. But as Jim, a meticulous editor, would say, “You made the point. Just end it gracefully.”
Mr. Effron is vice president of news, Post-Newsweek Stations.