Time's White House correspondent returns to UC Santa Cruz

Time magazine White House correspondent Michael Scherer is a 1998 UC Santa Cruz graduate. He spoke to creative writing students Monday at Kresge College.(Photograph by Guy Lasnier)

Michael Scherer, the White House correspondent for Time magazine and a UC Santa Cruz alumnus (Oakes, creative writing, '98) returned to campus Monday to describe how he went from random typing at UCSC to riding Air Force One with the president.

Scherer had good news for the creative writing majors who attended his informal talk at Kresge College.  "It's not as gloomy as people tell you," he said. Opportunities are there "if you are willing to work cheap and really hard."

Scherer said he graduated without any marketable skills other than "how to put a sentence together."

He worked for a small New Hampshire daily newspaper for a couple of years, then Mother Jones magazine in a job that didn't pay enough to live on. A masters in journalism from Columbia University followed, then another stint at Mother Jones, a jump to Salon.com, and finally during the 2008 presidential campaign a call to join Time in covering Republican candidates, first Mike Huckabee, then Mitt Romney, and finally John McCain when he was the last one standing.

The sea change that has buffeted journalism in the past decade, particularly the past five years, has altered the typical career path, Scherer said, offering himself as an example.

The days when a budding reporter would work for a small daily, then a larger daily, then a major metro are pretty much gone. The jobs exist but they are few and far between. Today, it's all about one's voice and getting that voice heard. It can be cultivated anywhere on the Internet. Anyone can do it, he said, but not everyone will succeed.

"Take advantage of this moment in time to write and get paid for writing," he said.

The journalism revolution has turned everything upside down, leveling the playing field for all players, he said. Whereas once Time magazine and the New York Times spoke with one voice and an influential Associated Press reporter could set the agenda for the nation, today a multitude of voices fill information niches.

A 24-year-old blogger with a nugget of information and a "voice" can get the same bang (if it is a good nugget) as a New York Times reporter, he said.

That doesn't mean one can be wrong, he said; good reporting is still vital. "If it's all just rants and not reporting, democracy is not well served. Subjectivity," he said, "does not give you license to be wrong."

Scherer said he was one of the first students in the creative writing program led by associate professor Micah Perks and professor Karen Yamashita. Perks, co-director of the creative writing program, said she's been trying to get Scherer to return to campus to talk with writing students. He was able to this week while visiting family in San Francisco.

Perks, who is also the Kresge provost, made the Oakes College alum an honorary Kresge College member.

Scherer described stints of random typing at UCSC in an effort to learn to write. His senior thesis was titled "Learning to Type." His literary efforts at the time were "not exactly plagiarism but possible plagiarism," he recalled.

But he graduated with an ability to write quickly and in clear sentences, he said. "That's what I came out of here with."

Today, he looks at covering politics as telling a human story with the traditional story-telling elements of narrative and character.  The difference between politics and other stories is "it matters in a way a lot of others don't," he said.