Adam Penenberg was the final speaker this semester for the School of Journalism’s My Life As… lecture series. Despite his lecture on Tuesday being the first time he visited Stony Brook, he was already well known on campus.
Penenberg talked to a full SAC auditorium. The students seemed interested throughout his discussion of his life in journalism, but started to chat amongst themselves when he mentioned advertising and virtual currency.
Students taking News Literacy have already been introduced to Penenberg when they watched and wrote about the movie Shattered Glass for a homework assignment. In the film, Penenberg was played by Steve Zahn
Penenberg started out as a successful jazz musician. After playing his music for a number of years with Galt MacDermot, he decided to go to college after synthesizers came out and threatened his way of life.
At Reed College, Penenberg had trouble understanding his first reading assignment in his German history class. His teacher asked him why, and he replied that is was because of the language.
“You’re having trouble understanding the German?”
“No, I’m having trouble understanding the English.”
“When I was your age, I was a complete screw up… I didn’t write a word until I was 28!”
He told us. Despite having to constantly learn new vocabulary words in order to keep up, Penenberg was able to graduate with a degree in economics.
He then spent 4 years traveling the world playing music and camping on the side of the road. By the time he was 28, he was broke and back living in New York looking for work.
He became a journalist the hard way when he saw a good idea for a story and decided to write it up. Katz’s Deli, which sent salamis to soldiers during the wars in Vietnam and Korea, was sending ‘salamis to your guys in the army’
He bought a book on how to write a query letter and got to work. As for where to send it, he figured that he’d try the New York Times. “I know it was arrogant of me looking back.” he said. Amazingly enough, his piece was accepted.
Penenberg went on to work as a freelance writer for the next 6 years. He struggled to make a living until he got a job with Wired, an online publication during the early years of internet news. Penenberg eventually got a job with Forbes’ online publication because of his internet experience.
Penenberg described his time at Forbes as enjoyable. “When you’re early to something, it’s like the wild west. You can write about anything. There were so few of us, and so many stories to cover; I couldn’t keep up with all of it.” He chose to cover stories about computer hackers.
Penenberg discussed the transition between print and online journalism. At first, online publications were looked down upon because they could not possibly meet their deadlines while doing adequate research. Forbes even kept their online division in a different building that their magazine back then.
When Penenberg exposed Glass, he gave credibility to online journalists. He was brought to CNN the day after he was credited with the story and from there went on a whirlwind tour of news outlets wanting to ask him questions.
Today, Penenberg feels that journalism is about to change again because online advertising in its current form doesn’t work. He encouraged Stony Brook journalism students to take advantage of virtual currency and other new technologies. He hopes that we too will be able to write in ‘the wild west’ of a new form of journalism.