I recently had the chance to sit down with Brian Toolan, former national religion editor for the Associated Press, when he visited campus as a guest for Professor Jeff Benedict’s “Contemporary Issues” class in September. Toolan is also the former editor-in-chief of the Hartford Courant and former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. After meeting with me for a few minutes and discussing his career in journalism and his advice for today’s college students, Toolan joined Benedict to teach a room full of Southern Virginia students — both members of Benedict’s class and of Hugh Bouchelle’s course, “Writing for Digital Media.”
Q: Why did you choose to go into journalism and what steps did you take to launch your career?
Toolan: When I was a senior in college, my father was a newspaperman, but I really wasn’t certain that’s what I wanted to do. The managing editor at that paper, which was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, basically asked my father if I’d be interested in starting off [writing] … obituaries and [covering events such as] fires. I thought I’d do it for a little while and then assess, but I loved it right from the beginning. I was very lucky; I had a very good career. I went from Scranton to Dayton, Ohio, on the sports desk there, and then to a [newspaper] in Baltimore, also on sports. Then I came to the Philadelphia Daily News and eventually I was a sports editor there and then the managing editor. In 1998, I became the editor at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. That was the best stretch of my career. We won a Pulitzer Prize and were finalists a number of other times. There’s an awful lot of talent there. It was a lot of fun. … Now I’ve got a couple of book ideas and so that’s what I’m planning to do now.
Q: What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Toolan: Many of them came when I was at the Hartford Courant. We won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 1999 and it was about coverage of a disgruntled employee coming into the Connecticut State Lottery headquarters and killing six people. We also won Pulitzer Prizes for a series on bad doctors that we did. We had a photography Pulitzer Prize for a town in Connecticut that was overrun with heroin abuse and the toll it took on the town and the people that were selling and using. There were a lot of good things there. … I was proud to be a part of it.
Q: What are some of the projects that you have enjoyed the most throughout your career?
Toolan: One was [that when] it looked like the Sunday magazine was going to be killed for fiscal reasons, we found a way to keep it going by turning it into a broadsheet newsprint product as opposed to a magazine. … The fact that we bought another eight years of life to that kind of journalism. It was introspective, very good feature writing. It was long form journalism. Jeff Benedict was among some of the best stories that we ever had. [In one story that] Jeff took on, [he proved] to the congressional representatives in Connecticut that they gave away an incredibly expensive piece of land in Southeastern Connecticut to a group of people who were no more Native American than I am. From that they built their casino and made a ton of money. … Jeff’s book was called “Without Reservation.” [In it] he brought all his investigative skills to bear. It was a spellbinding piece about these … people living in Providence, Rhode Island, and they claimed they were the [descendants] of a tribe. Jeff’s reporting really had people wondering, what did the state do? What did they give away? And the fact that it might have happened improperly. I liked having a hand in that and getting to know Jeff. Now this has been a friendship that has been 15 years old.
Q: What have you learned from experiences during your career that you wish you had known when you started?
Toolan: In the second half of my career, I became particularly interested in photo journalism and newspaper design. I think I always knew this in an abstract way. [The Hartford Courant] had just brilliant photojournalists and brilliant designers. It was a real landing place for people who were hugely talented. [This helped me] to see the power of delivering a story in ways other than [through] text. I wish I knew that earlier in my career and could begin to help sustain it in the ways I did later. Spending time at the Courant, which won international awards for its design, was a great way to learn this new method of storytelling.
Q: What is your best advice for today’s college students?
Toolan: Luxuriate in the new ways that journalism can be delivered now, not just the fact that you might get it on a computer and an iPhone or that you get information from tweets and blogs and other manners, but that it requires new storytelling reflexes. I think that’s very exciting. Someone your age can find new manners of reporting the news, telling stories and delivering opinions; this is the full bloom of those opportunities these days. … Understand mass communication and the need to be civically aware. No matter the conveyance, journalism has the chance to make things that are wrong right, or, at the very least, prepare a citizen to be actionable. That’s what journalism is supposed to be about; it informs the public. [With] the explosion of different ways to dispense information now, people … have a chance to make a mark.
Q: Have you enjoyed your visit to Southern Virginia so far?
Toolan: I’ve enjoyed it very much. This is the third time that Jeff has asked me down. … I think the school is charming. The students I’ve met are really engaging. … I can’t tell you how impressed I always am. It’s a great school and the kids who are here are very, very sharp. … Plus, my two oldest sons graduated from VMI. … We’ve always loved the Shenandoah Valley, so being down here is a treat
(Post by Hannah King ’13. Photo by Jordan Wunderlich ’15.)