Award ceremonies may not tell you all you need to know about a consummate professional, but they provide you with the opportunity to understand why certain individuals do what they do. They present a window to their worldview and the bedrock principles that underscore their diligence and dedication.
That in a way explains the lens through which I began to view Walter Middlebrook, outgoing assistant managing editor at The Detroit News, when he and I and other journalists were honored for our commitment to media diversity.
The ceremony, held in March 2010, presented Middlebrook as a man who did not take his professional responsibilities lightly and who has earned the respect of his colleagues in the business.
I remembered his quiet demeanor. In fact, when he walked in, he didn’t project himself in a manner that suggested he was one of the honorees. Instead, he was busy interacting with some of the journalism students, and I would later find out that mentoring budding journalists was one of his greatest passions.
Five years after our maiden encounter, fate brought us together at The News, where I got the opportunity to know him better. As he was assigned to edit my columns, Middlebrook and I would talk regularly on a wide range of issues. When he and I would meet he would make his observations in a way that wouldn’t question or undermine my right to express my viewpoints. I came to see him as someone with a discerning and inspiring disposition, who does not force his opinion on others despite his own strong convictions.
Of course, I had no doubt he had genuine interest in my success as a columnist. But I was not alone in this. Several other journalists who have crossed paths with Middlebrook, and went on to become widely successful, feel the same way.
“I first met Walter at a minority job fair sponsored by Newsday where he worked at the time in the late 1990s,” said Russell Contreras, who is now an Associated Press reporter for New Mexico. “At the job fair, he advised me that I should consider a medium or small newspaper to get clips and experience. He said don’t be scared to go to a newspaper of any size if you were going to write strong stories.”
Contreras remembered the last advice Middlebrook gave him: He should help other young journalists of color who would come behind him.
“His commitment to diversity and his desire to get diverse voices in the American narrative remain one of his greatest contributions,” Contreras said.
Richard Prince, who writes Journal-isms, a weekly online journal about the media and diversity, agrees.
“He is hard working, loyal, dedicated to the craft and dedicated to the need for inclusion,” said Prince, who met Middlebrook in the 1980s through the National Association of Black Journalists.
But Middlebrook’s biggest impact is perhaps felt at The News, where he recruited and mentored many current and former reporters when he returned to the paper in 2007 as recruiting editor. He was later appointed by publisher Jonathan Wolman to assistant managing editor in 2009 to oversee the paper’s metro coverage. Since 2014, he has directed the investigations and project team.
“Walter has served two tours of duty here, making enormous contributions to our coverage,” Wolman said. “But more than that, he’s been something of an ambassador, representing the paper across Detroit and throughout Michigan in community, academic and publishing circles.”
He added, “He’s picked up a million friends and admirers in a career that took him to the New York Times, USA Today, Newsday and terrific papers in Boston, the Twin Cities and Memphis. He’s been a mentor to many young journalists and some not-so-young, including me.”
It is often said that men and women who’ve gone on to make a significant difference in the lives of others are products of the societies that informed their upbringing. Middlebrook explained his coming of age in Memphis, Tennessee, in the era of Jim Crow during a panel discussion in 2016.
“I was born and raised in the Deep South during segregation. And I was raised with a father in the house. He was not an educated man, but he taught me the value of work, ethics and self-esteem. He even went without employment for several years because of his activities in the labor movement. Between my father and my mother, we never went without food or ever thought that we were poor,” Middlebrook said.
In an era when the news media has come under assault, and the legitimacy of news organizations continue to face questioning, journalism is alive today because of the outstanding contributions of journalists like Walter Middlebrook.
As he bids us goodbye at The News, I know I will miss his eagle eyes and kind suggestions.
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