It requires real reporting

By Marc Johnson

As a very, very green – green as in no experience – aspiring journalist many years ago, I now know how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to endure a few months of sheer terror working under the knowing influence of a truly accomplished city editor.  At an impressionable age, those few weeks of education at the hands of an exacting news veteran have had a marked impact on all the years of my professional life.

My early mentor, at least as I remember him, always had a pencil stuck behind his ear and the sleeves of his white shirts rolled up above the elbows. He would issue newsroom orders while never rising from his chair and would reinforce the urgency of whatever he wanted accomplished by waving about and pointing a pica pole (look it up) much as I imagine Toscanini might have directed a symphony.  In the dark ages of journalism when newspapers were assembled not with computers, but with hot lead, I once saw this city editor leave his desk on deadline, sprint to the composing room on the floor below the newsroom, fling himself into the command seat of a linotype machine and compose – in hot type – a new lead on a breaking story.  This guy knew the business, as they say.

A man of few and carefully chosen words, he imparted two lessons I have tried to never forget.  One lesson involved writing, the other involved reporting.  I once proudly handed in a lengthy piece destined for the Sunday feature section.  I had produced, in my own mind at least, a story with a perfect mix of insight, intelligence and cleverness.  It was the kind of piece people would be talking about around the water cooler Monday afternoon.  When the piece came back from the city desk bleeding red ink, I was stunned.  The editing seemed to have remade the entire piece.  Then I noticed chilling words written in the margin:  “Let’s talk.”

I approached the city editor’s perch – ground zero in the newsroom – with about as much anxiety as I would have felt had I had to confront Dad with the news of a crumpled fender on the new Plymouth.  I waited.  Surely he would glance up eventually then speak profoundly about my shortcomings and swiftly end my dreams of a career in newspapers.  Finally, he spoke.  “Just remember,” this master of the newsroom said, “it doesn’t cost us any more to print a period.”  I stood silent as he turned back to marking up some other poor slob’s copy.

What was he saying?  “It doesn’t cost us any more to print a period.”

I took my story, brutalized with red editing marks, to my desk in the far corner of the newsroom and in a few minutes reality took hold.  The vast majority of the editing marks indicated the need to replace a comma with a period.  The old pro was telling me, gently but effectively, to knock off the run-on sentences.  Good writing is often about the simple, descriptive sentence.  He was telling me to strive for clear meaning by using straightforward, concise sentences.  I could reserve the flowery, creative writing for my novel, should there ever be one.

The second lesson the  ink-stained veteran served up was, if anything, even more important.  He taught me that facts alone are seldom enough.  Good writing and reporting require context.

I remember handing him another story (I have long since forgotten the subject, but it could well have been a routine report on a city council meeting) and having it returned accompanied by a crystal clear bit of editorial insight.  “You are not the first person who has ever written about this subject,” the city editor said, “and don’t treat the reader like you are.”  In other words, he was appropriately pointing out that a good many things had happened before I stumbled on the collection of facts I had assembled into a story and it might be appropriate as a reporter to attempt to convey some sense of context.

Context, by which I mean shedding light on the meaning of facts, is much harder to come by, I admit, than using a period more regularly.  It requires real reporting, making the extra call, cultivating a new source.  Context is particularly important in reporting on politics and public policy.  Because, believe me, nothing is ever really happening for the first time.  All political news is a variation on a theme already played.

Therefore, I make a gentle and I hope respectful plea to my friends in the news racket to, at least once in a while, ask “who has been through this before?”  Or, who might have a perspective on this budget crisis or that legislative debate simply because they had lived through something similar in an earlier time.

My old city editor would have said it simply.  “Go find someone with a perspective and no particular ax to grind and ask them what is important about what is going on.”  I would be among the first to acknowledge the brutal crush of daily journalism provides precious little opportunity to flesh out a piece with “context,” but that may make the effort even more important and more rewarding to the reporter and the reader.

We all know the current narrative of the news business:  shrinking staffs, reduced budgets, few reporters and more demands.  I cannot imagine the economic pressures crowding in on newsrooms today.  All I know for sure is that lots of us – devoted consumers and users of news – still depend on the work product of the daily craft.  Keep after it.

Thanks for the opportunity to reminisce, pop off and cheerlead.  I will be reading and listening, hoping always for context and still aware that the little dot at the end of this sentence is one of the least expensive things in journalism.

Marc C. Johnson is a former television reporter and producer and columnist for the  Idaho Statesman.  He was president of the Idaho Press Club in 1978 and later served as press secretary and chief of staff to Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.  Johnson is currently president of Gallatin Public Affairs.