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Alumni Stories: Keith Hammonds '81

A Career in Journalism by Maggie Shnayerson '03

Hammonds

Like most successful journalists, Keith Hammonds '81 jumpstarted his career with his own hands.

Though he enrolled in Harvard Business School some time after receiving his degree from the College, Hammonds hopped a plane the day before graduation to cover economic and health issues in South Africa.

"It was a very cool time and place to be a journalist," Hammonds said of his experience in that country in the mid-eighties. "There was real tension and real danger."

Such tenacity has served Hammonds well. Currently Hammonds is a senior editor at Fast Company, a magazine that charges itself with chronicling the evolving nature of business. The publication was launched in 1995 and has garnered the respectful attention of colleagues.

Though journalism can seem like an unstable trade to many, Hammonds said the fact that large corporations tend to own most news outlets makes him feel more confident about the future of his job.

"The corporation pays my salary, my pension plan, I get benefits, a 401K savings plan. I feel as secure in my job and in my career as anyone I know in investment banking," he said.

Reporting for a corporate-owned publication can be trying, Hammonds acknowledged. Conflicts of interest are "inherent" as a result.

"Journalists who work for those organizations have to stick to their personal values, they have to be incredibly vigilant about the stories they pursue and how they pursue them."

Ultimately, however, journalism is less about making profits than about contributing to its readership, he said.

"I think journalism is a pretty wonderful gig, because it is essentially a service enterprise. I think you have to buy into that notion of service and be passionate about it in order to invest yourself in journalism, because money is never going to be a huge motivator," Hammonds said.

"The thrill of seeing a byline, the ego fulfillment of that, dies off after awhile and ultimately it comes down to creating something of value for other people," he continued.

At Dartmouth, Hammonds worked on the staff of The Dartmouth as a jack-of-all-trades, filling positions from photography editor to business manager. Like many of his peers, Hammonds also took a job with dining services as a dishwasher.

"It sucked," Hammonds recalls, chuckling.

Two internships in his hometown of Greenwich, Conn., with Greenwich Time solidified his interest in journalism as a career.

"The internships were fantastic because it was a small paper, and I got to write stuff everyday, in fact — I had to write stuff everyday — it was part of the deal. There wasn't a whole lot of warm-up involved; I hit the ground running."

The downside of reporting for a small paper, according to Hammonds, is the lack of handholding involved. It is also the upside, he pointed out.

"It was very much learning by doing, that's the advantage of working for a small organization. There is a very intense doctrination into the trade," Hammonds said.

After Hammonds graduated from the College in 1981, he joined the ranks of aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins as a copy boy at The New York Times.

After two years in New York, Hammonds toyed with the idea of switching to behind the scenes work in journalism.

"I applied to business schools thinking I was going to switch over to the business side of the paper," Hammonds said. "I loved newspapers, but I thought I could have more impact on the publishing side."

Before matriculating at Harvard Business School, Hammonds spent six months abroad working out of The New York Times' London bureau freelancing for all sections of the paper, a time Hammonds remembers as one of his fondest.

"It was a truly amazing experience where I got to be an honest-to-God journalist for a real paper, and I got to live in one of the most romantic places in the world. It was pretty cool for a 24 year old," he said.

The experience created a quandary for Hammonds. "At Harvard, I nearly flunked out because I wasn't completely sure I wanted to be there. I barely survived the first year on probation."

A stint on the business end of the Minneapolis Star Tribune working on projects for that paper in the summer of 1985 while he was enrolled at Harvard solidified Hammonds's true calling.

"[The projects] were pretty interesting, but turns out they were not quite as interesting as being a journalist. I went back for the second year [at Harvard] but it became clearer as the year went on that what I really wanted to do was write."

Hammonds traveled to South Africa with this realization, having secured a position at Johannesburg's Business Day. The volatile political climate was fascinating and exhilarating for Hammonds, however he soon became concerned about getting what he called "an establishment job that felt real," as opposed to the freelance-type work he had been doing.

Hammonds was hired by Business Week's Boston bureau and spent four years working there, eventually rising to bureau chief.

A return trip to South Africa with his fiancée, Jackie, led to a nine-month long job with a non-government organization (NGO) in Namibia working on establishing agricultural training sessions across the country and supplying food to drought-stricken areas.

"Jackie and I had vast experience with drought food distribution, so we were selected," Hammonds said, tongue in cheek. Though he had left the magazine, Hammonds kept in touch with Business Week readers through a local column printed in the publication about his drought relief experience.

The rampant crime in the area at the time gave the two a good incentive to return to the United States, where Hammonds returned to Business Week and was married in 1993.

"I begged Business Week to give me a job, and they did," Hammonds said. He was eventually promoted to social policy editor, but Hammonds joked his title didn't make him the belle of any balls.

"I didn't get invited to too may parties at all. 'Social' policy is not really a party kind of thing. It was an interesting beat for me, though, poverty policy, social policy, the role of corporations as citizens in a community."

Such issues began to draw Hammonds' interest more and more, and he said he was increasingly aware that Business Week was not the perfect place for him.

"The social issue stuff wasn't a core beat for Business Week and never would be. It was something important, but it was never at the heart of what Business Week was. The writing was on the wall."

Fast Company caught Hammonds' eye as it was starting out and he joined up when he was told he could continue to work for the Boston-based company in New York City where his wife and their three children, Connor, 8; Tara, 7; and Claire, 4, were settled in.

"I'm doing what I'm doing because I love it, and I think that's good advice for any profession. I would stick to stuff you love, otherwise nothing is worth it, I think," Hammonds said.

"I find myself in a position [now] where I actually make pretty good money doing something I love. A lot of journalism isn't like that — if you're going to stick it out, it sure helps to be able to be passionate about what you're trying to accomplish."

Last Updated: 6/21/12