During her days working on the Declaration at UVA, Amy Argetsinger (Col '90) discovered one of journalism's best-kept secrets.
"How absolutely fun it is!" says Argetsinger, now a columnist at the Washington Post.
The University has no journalism program. But Argetsinger found teachers who knew and loved the craft. "Two courses I took had an incredible impact on my career," she says. "Both were taught by adjunct faculty who were experienced journalists. Jonathan Coleman's course on nonfiction writing raised the ambition bar for everyone who took it and inspired many of us to pursue writing as a career. And the late Champ Clark's newswriting class taught me so much about structuring a story and writing in a clean, lean style."
Of course, there are perks. Like attending the glitzy White House Correspondents' Association dinner for 2,600 media darlings. Her backless, silky, floor-length gown was worlds removed from the rumpled attire associated with newspaper reporters.
Any explanation of Argetsinger's star turn at that ritzy Washington party would begin in Charlottesville on Tuesday nights in the late 1980s.
She had come to UVA from Alexandria's St. Agnes School with no grand plan. She thought she might major in engineering. Then she fell in with friends who worked at the Declaration, the University's alternative weekly newspaper. Tuesdays were deadline days. Those days she helped with the whole package. She was into the reporting, writing, editing, designing and printing of a real newspaper.
From the University, the bright, young, ambitious journalist dreaming of a job at the Washington Post went to … Moline, Illinois?
"I sent out 150 résumés to papers and had only one requirement—that it be east of the Mississippi," she says.
Moline is about one foot east of the Mississippi. But the river city's Daily Dispatch (and its sister newspaper, the Rock Island Argus) had one advantage over all other newspapers: It was the only one of the 150 that offered Argetsinger a job.
She ended up working four years in the wilds of Illinois. In 1995, the Post hired her for its Annapolis bureau, soon moving her to its Metro staff, then on to Los Angeles, where she was bureau chief and wrote about mudslides, fires and other calamities.
Then the home office offered her a job—doing the Source—that she had never considered.
Take, for example, the day she opened an email from her colleague, Roxanne Roberts. The night of Nov. 24, 2009, Roberts was on duty at a White House state dinner.
"You won't believe who showed up," Roberts wrote to Argetsinger.
Doing the Source, the pair had come to know the major players on the Washington social scene—including Tareq and Michaele Salahi, whose claims to fame and/or infamy caused them to be described in the Source as "polo-playing socialites."
Argetsinger and Roberts had written about the Salahis as combatants in a soap-opera feud with Tareq's parents over control of the family's Virginia winery. The Salahis also had been defendants in a lawsuit filed by a caterer who claimed they'd stiffed him. Although gossip columnists could ask for little more, the Salahis provided it by shouting from rooftops that they were up for roles in a television reality show, The Real Housewives of Washington.
"When Roxanne told me," Argetsinger now says, "I just flipped out. I knew they had to have crashed. … They were not the kind of people who would be invited to a state dinner. And if they were invited, that would be scandal enough."
Two days later, the Argetsinger-Roberts scoop appeared on the front page of the newspaper. It began: "A couple of aspiring reality-TV stars from Northern Virginia appear to have crashed the White House's state dinner Tuesday night, penetrating layers of security with no invitation to mingle with the likes of Vice President Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel."
Fifty-five times in the next year, Argetsinger and Roberts mentioned the Salahis in their column. The Salahis have continued to appear in the press; They are now estranged and embroiled in a legal battle with each other
"Finally," Argetsinger says, "I had an answer to the interview question, 'What's been the most interesting story you've done?'"
Another interview question: What's the best part of the job?
Then, she says, "There's a sense of excitement, like being back at the Dec on Tuesday nights."