Warren Brown, the popular Washington Post auto reporter who passed away last week could have had virtually any beat he wanted when he came to the Post in 1978 as an Ivy-League credentialed African American journalist at a time when the paper was trying to diversify its reporting ranks. But somewhat surprisingly, Brown chose to move from national desk where he covered race and urban affairs issues to write about the auto industry.
Though his editors were flummoxed, Brown wanted to write about cars because they mattered to him. From the Post :
[Brown] explained that he felt called to the job for reasons he traced to his upbringing in the segregated South. Black passengers, including his college-educated father, were almost always forced to the back of city buses.
“Freedom came when my parents and black neighbors bought their own cars,” he said in the C-SPAN interview. “That way they could not only sit up front, but could also drive the things. And that to me was power, that to me was freedom.”
And so Brown obsessed himself with the auto industry, writing and then broadcasting about auto safety regulations and shakeups at Detroit car companies and car buying. At a time when many traditional journalists have lost their jobs as the result of newspapers’ economic struggles in the Internet Age, Brown remained relevant and read for three decades.
So what lessons can lawyers learn from Brown? First, do what matters to you, not what matters to others. Brown’s well-intended editors believed that he could attain visibility covering race issues as a national reporter, but for Brown, cars mattered more to him personally because they liberated Brown’s parents and neighbors from the indignities of public transportation. Second, own your corner of the universe – build a fiefdom, as one of Brown’s editors recommended. Finally, convert your work into a mission. As Brown wrote in his farewell column :
What began as a news beat in 1982 became and remains a mission. In the process, I have morphed from journalist into servant, which is the proper mind-set for covering an industry on which so many people depend.
So what are you waiting for? Go out and find what matters and stake a claim to your corner of the universe. Because like Brown, you just might wind up changing the world in the process.