Harnessing his college alumni network and his passion for writing, Jonathan Capehart made his mark on journalism. Now at Hill & Knowlton, he is looking to do the same in PR.
There are plenty of reasons why most 25-year-olds aren't working as editorial writers for the New York Daily News. General uncouthness, for one, closely followed by the average quarter-century-old's inherent inability to construct sophisticated arguments, wear sophisticated suits, or move in sophisticated enough circles to bring their names to the Daily News editor's attention.
Jonathan Capehart, a certified boy wonder, managed to overcome those built-in generational obstacles 10 years ago, when he found himself as the newest member of the paper's editorial board. Many might consider this an impressive feat, given the extent of his professional journalism experience before that point - one year as a Today researcher, pre-interviewing guests and writing appropriately peppy interview questions for hosts like Katie Couric.
How the hell did he do it?
"Everything that's happened to me goes back to Carleton College," he says.
Capehart grew up in New Jersey, and attended private St. Benedict's prep school. "Since I was 10, I'd tell people I wanted to be a news commentator," he laughs. He moved on to Carleton, a small college in Minnesota that offered a wealth of contacts that would prove helpful to him back on the East Coast. There, he temped at news organizations in New York during the summer and worked on the school's TV show as an editorial commentator.
Through the school president, whom he had worked for as an assistant his senior year, he landed a post-graduation job at the WNYC foundation, where he was also the president's assistant.
Though he had a good thing going at WNYC, the urge for journalism remained. "I left a secure job with benefits to [go to] a three-month vacation relief job at Today," he says.
Three months turned into a year. Capehart was perfectly happy at Today, but the web of Carleton alumni was conspiring behind his back to push him further up the media ladder.
"Mort Zuckerman buys the Daily News, and he tells the op-ed editor that he's looking for young people who can write for the editorial page," Capehart says. That editor, as it turned out, asked his former colleague - the president of Carleton College - for recommendations. He promptly named Capehart, who promptly turned the offer down, saying he was happy at Today.
"I called both my mom and my partner at the time, and said, 'I had this weird call,'" he remembers. "They both said to me, 'Are you crazy? Call him back!'"
A month later, Capehart was the youngest-ever member of the Daily News' editorial board, based partly on the strength of his news-story-like interview notes he had prepared for Today hosts and presented to the paper as proof that he could write. He spent the next six years at the paper, helping to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for a series of editorials advocating for saving Harlem's Apollo Theater. He and the board were also awarded a George Polk Award in 2000 for a lengthy "Harvest of Shame" series about the conditions that poor farm workers faced in New York.
Alex Storozynski, Capehart's editorial-board colleague for several years before leaving to edit amNewYork, says that Capehart was one of the most prepared editorial writers he had ever seen.
"I still see him in my head, colored markers and highlighters, going over stuff for every possible angle," he says.
That preparation allowed Capehart to distinguish himself from the dreary pack instincts of the media masses. "Let's say you're interviewing somebody who's been a governor or a mayor, who's been asked every possible question by every possible journalist," says Storozynski. "The trick is to think of something that hasn't been asked. Jonathan read every single word to figure out, 'OK, let's ask him about this.'"
In 2000, seeking something new, Capehart moved to Bloomberg News as a national affairs columnist, a period he describes as "the best seven months of my professional life." His cachet in the New York journalism world was such that he landed the job by turning down what Bloomberg offered him and semiseriously demanding a spot writing a weekly column and going on TV to talk about it - which the Bloomberg editor promptly offered him.
It was just a matter of time before Capehart met the man behind the money, Michael Bloomberg. Rumors were flying about Bloomberg's intentions to run for mayor, and Capehart took a leave of absence from his column to sign on as the campaign's first official hire.
Capehart served as a media adviser and helped "do policy," which he details as such: "He'd work with experts. They'd come up with, 'Here's what I believe in'... [and I'd] add the prose and the poetry." After Bloomberg was elected, Capehart returned to the news organization for his first-ever stint as a normal reporter, with the grand title of "global poverty correspondent." He says that was "a disaster" because the transition from argumentative editorial writer to a just-the-facts-ma'am correspondent was too much to bear so quickly. In 2002, he returned to his old Daily News job.
But by last December, Capehart had simply had enough of journalism. "The prospect of writing yet another 'Albany stinks' editorial was like, put a bullet through my head," he says. He talked to some of his many contacts, and, in December, joined Hill & Knowlton as SVP and senior counselor of public affairs.
Today, Capehart sits in a tidy window office, dressed nattily, poring over papers and listening to classical music in his free moments. A steeply rising curve has defined his career's trajectory, and he shows no signs of slowing down as a go-to man for those looking to gain favor with his old boss and pal, who is running for re-election this year.
"[H&K] is a powerhouse," he says, "and I only work for powerhouses."
H&K, SVP/senior counselor, public affairs
NY Daily News, deputy editorial page editor
Michael Bloomberg policy adviser
Bloomberg News, national affairs columnist
NY Daily News, editorial board member
Today show, researcher
WNYC Foundation, asst. to the president