Kenneth Campbell is so shy that it's hard to imagine him scuffling, rough and tumble, among a pack of reporters as they vie for the killer quote from public figure. Yet, a reporter is what Campbell, a slim, 21-year-old senior from East Carolina University, plans to be.
Being a journalist seems to be this decade's hot new career choice. Even since Watergate and the meteoric rise to fame of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, enrollment in journalism schools and interest in reporters have been on the increase. With around 60,000 journalism majors declared and only 40,000 journalism jobs - not openings, jobs - existing, Campbell and the other hundreds of aspiring black journalists who attended Howard University's School of Communications Conference over the weekend have chosen a tough field to break into.
Campbell knows what a tight market faces him, but the gold medallion that hangs around his neck is testimony to his determination to make it as a reporter. Campbell was this year's winner of the Freedom's Journal Essay Contest, an award that carried with it transportation and hotel accomodations at the conference. If he had not won, he wouldn't have been able to attend.
"I just really wanted to get here," he says, sitting in one of the empty, darkened restaurants of the mayflower Hotel. "I entered thinking I could win something, then I could scrape together enough money so I could afford gas."
The conference, which had the Mayflower's lobby swarming with young blacks, is a kind of workshop where black reporters who already are working for the media tell what it's like. It is also an opportunity for the students who attend to be interviewed by representatives of newspapers, wire services and television and radio stations.
What the recruiters have to say is not encouraging, Campbell said, but he came to the conference with no illusinons about landing a job.
"A lot of people were unimpressed with the outcome of their interviews, but I'm not naive or misled. I don't feel it was a waste of time to have the interviews. I just wish I'd had this on when I went for them," he said, fondling his medal. "Maybe it would have meant something to the interviewer."
Campbell, who is from Whiteville, N.C., a town of 5,000 he describes as, full of people who don't know what's in the papers," said he wanted to be a journalist long before the Woodward-Bernstein coup.
"My mother has a high-school education and most of the people in my town have just a high-school education. I wanted to be a reporter so that I can write for them. I don't know big words so I could explain what's going on in the world using their words."
Campbell has a soft Southern accent, something he's slightly ashamed of "the stigmatism of the South.
"It's not as prevelant today, now that we have Jimmy Carter in the White House, but people viewed the South as a backward place. I can identify with Carter, though I'm not white, because we're both Southerners."
What comes through in talking with Campbell is that he is a product of the late 1960s. Black power had peaked by the time he was entering college, leaving him and other black students of the era less strident about working with whites. Though he feels a black reporter would bring more to a story about blacks than a white reporter, he is not prepared to say that only a black reporter can do a black story.
"Over the years there have been white reporters who have reported the black experience well. One black reporter was telling us that when he was in Kenya the only way he knew what was happening in Bermingham in 1963 was through reading white newspapers. Black papers just couldn't afford to send their reporters until they were sure there was a story."
Still, Campbell has a committment to bringing the black perspective to journalism when he does become a reporter.
"I definitely feel there's a need for more black people to be in the media> but that's not my main reason. I love writing and I'm the kind of person who would rather work behind the scenes. I'm shy. I don't like to give my own opinion. I'd rather report someone else's. My opinion would come out in the article because of the type of questions I ask or the way I write it. I'd be writing with a black perspective."
Meanwhile, though, there's the problem of job. Campbell, who graduates in March, plans to go to a journalism graduate school and is looking for ways to finance this. And though he won his medal for an essay entitled "The Role of the Black Press," he feels there is little hope of finding a job on a black publication.
"It's more likely that I can get an internship on a white publication, because they can afford them," he said. "But right now, I'm mostly concerned with which J-school I'm going to go to. I'm considering the University of North Carolina and the University of Maryland. I'd love to go to Columbia, but that's a lot of money.
"We (blacks) want to make a difference. We'd like to make a difference in the media." With a final surge of determination, he said, "I will make a difference.