About the news business – a pre-modern view


Dan Reimold, a journalism professor at the University of Tampa, wrote the other day to ask for the answers to some questions, as a contribution to a journalism textbook he is preparing. He described himself as an “impassioned college journalism scholar.” Rutgers University Press published his first book. He must be an extremely industrious college professor, and something of a Holmesian sleuth, to have found me, and Nelson Sigelman, The Times’ managing editor.

The questions had to do with “various aspects of the craft.”

“The advice,” the professor wrote, “is meant to be direct, off-the-cuff, and possibly include information too often buried or missing from a typical journalism text.”

Among Professor Reimold’s contributors, he reported, are working news folk from the Associated Press, New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Politico, and ESPN.com.

First, he wanted to know, “What advice do you have for students aiming to be successful journalists?”

I resisted the urge to reply curtly, “Aim elsewhere.”

These days, I confess, I’ve got my gloom on, especially when I consider the behavior of the press since Saturday. Talk about missing the story. Talk about making the story what the press wanted it to be. Then, after running off the cliff — in pursuit of the bloggers, I suppose — national journalists have been doing some finessing, or call it fancy backpedaling. But that’s off my point.

Anyway, I answered this way. Make more phone calls. Talk to more people. Read more documents. In my experience, good stories always get better the wider the net that the reporter casts. Even trivial stories can become, unexpectedly, good or even terrific, if the writer’s research and fact-gathering are more extensive. I might have added that this is the route to the actual story, rather than the one that begins in the reporter’s head.

Remember that it’s a story, with all that term implies, I added. The writer’s choices — of factual information, of quotes, of organization, of what to credit and what to dismiss, of the meaningful contradictions of fact and observation that reveal themselves in the research, of the right word — all these make it a story. The writer’s mind and judgment makes it this story rather than that other one.

And, about objectivity, it’s a false god. The true god is fairness to what you’ve learned and a determination to represent in the story the judgment the writer came to as he weighed and then arranged and qualified the information he developed.

Next question: “What has been a particularly memorable moment for you as a journalist — during your student or professional days? A few lessons learned?”

This was fun. Lots of good memories.

I had many wonderful teachers, all of them in the work setting not in school, because I never went to journalism school. Three of them were Bill Caldwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Record of Hackensack — in retirement, he wrote a weekly column for me at the Vineyard Gazette; Scotty Reston, who hired me at the Gazette in 1972, based on some freelance stories I’d written for boating magazines, and made me managing editor of his paper; and Henry Beetle Hough, the editor of the Gazette while I worked there between 1972 and 1980.

Column or story, Bill punched out just one clean draft on his Royal Underwood, with nary a spelling or grammar error, or a cross out, or an incoherent thought. He did the hard work in his head before he began to write.

Scotty taught me not to take it all so seriously. He began as a sports reporter, and he was sports minded throughout his life. He ended up an influential political columnist on The New York Times. He had learned to tell his stories — whatever they were about — in flavorful, amiable, human terms that made them accessible and appealing to readers of all political persuasions.

Henry Hough taught decency and a deep and knowing regard for the community in which you’re reporting, and that would include, if it had been his beat, a mayor’s office, a city council, a state house, or Washington.

Last question: “What should students know about the modern journalist’s life?”

Not so much fun, this one.

Well, that it’s in flux, I wrote, which is not the same thing as in transition, which is the current favorite term for what’s going on in journalism. Transition implies some (even dimly) identified destination, and there is none. What will gain the kind of foothold that print journalism has enjoyed for decades, even centuries, no one knows. Maybe nothing will.

Right now, journalism is poorly paid, frighteningly uncertain, and likely to stay that way for a while. The premium is on speed not accuracy, telling readers what they want and expect to hear, partisanship, and embellishment. It’s probably a field one ought to avoid, but then the choices, no matter where one looks, are sketchy.

To survive the flux, the most successful newcomers will be the best educated, and that may mean graduate level specialization in law, technology, economics, or something else that adds value to the resume.

Not what the professor expected to hear, I suspect. I haven’t heard from him.

Note to the Reader: I’m afraid I gave you a bum steer in the column above, for which Professor Daniel Reimold’s questions were the inspiration. Professor Reimold of the University of Tampa emailed late yesterday to thank me, much too generously, for the answers that are recorded here. But the email, which included more questions, arrived too late for my deadline. Had it arrived earlier, I would have scrapped the last two-sentence graph above and contrived a different ending. Professor Reimold tells me he is “in Asia at the moment running some journalism workshops for students who, believe it or not, still aspire to enter the industry or at least learn some of the fundamentals of the craft.” As I said, he is industrious.