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Home > Fall 2001

Journalism's enduring rules: Part 2

Community College Journalist -- Fall 2001

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001
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10. Develop A Nose For News

Beginners had to learn how to write, but also what to write. Journalists called it "a nose for news." To succeed, beginners had to develop the instinct or fast judgment needed to look at a story and immediately know whether it was newsworthy and about how much space it deserved.

After establishing the Kansas City (Mo.) Evening Star in 1880, William Rockhill Nelson found that reporters with the ability to find the news were his most essential employees. Labert St. Clair agreed on the skill's importance. His autobiography explained: "The man who has the imagination to see a real story in an apparently commonplace happening and the initiative to go after it and develop the story, is the sort of man every newspaper is looking for. If, in addition, a reporter was also a good writer, so much the better."

But what is news? Dozens of journalists tried to define the term, yet most definitions were rather abstract generalities. Walter Cronkite, who started as a cub during the Depression, then became famous as a television anchorman, explained in his autobiography, "A story is newsworthy depending on how many people it affects and how deeply it affects them, and/or how close it happens to home, and/or how aberrational it is." Jo Ann Schmitt, author of the book Fighting Editors, added, "Newspapers seldom print the good everyday events of the community, for it is the dramatic, the spectacular, and the bad which makes news." Thus, a story about a horse thief, robbery, or shooting was more important than a story about someone's garden.

By the mid 1800s, editors also were emphasizing local news: stories that seemed especially likely to interest or affect their readers. Marquis James learned that lesson in Oklahoma around 1909. Two linemen were electrocuted, and doctors tried for two hours to revive them. Everyone in James' small town seemed to hear about the accident and rush to the scene. James returned to his small daily and wrote a four- or five-paragraph story about the men's deaths. Another of the town's dailies published a much longer story. The next morning, the town's third daily published an even longer story.

James apologized to his editor, saying he had not written a long story because everybody in town already knew what happened. His editor responded: "The more people who know or see a thing, the more people, those same people, want to read about it. Who do you think are most eager to read an account of a ball game or a political rally or a shower for a prospective bride? Those who were there, of course."

Journalists also emphasized stories about their readers and about other people their readers knew. Journalists considered stories that involved large numbers of people -- or prominent people -- even more newsworthy.

The editor of a weekly in Texas was unusually successful because he understood that people are most interested in their own lives, then their neighbors'. Asked to explain the secret of his success, the editor said: "It is very simple. Each week I print the names of as many of my readers as I can. Everyone reads the paper each week to see if their name, or the names of people they know, are there."

William Salisbury learned a similar lesson in Kansas City around 1900. The Kansas City Times printed a long obituary after every death, and a colleague explained, "The three most important events in life are birth, marriage, and death." The Times was unable to publish lengthy stories about births and marriages, which were too much alike. However, the Times was able to publish a lengthy obituary for everyone who died. "Nothing is so much appreciated by relatives of the departed," Salisbury learned, "and if the relatives of everybody who dies in Kansas City buy the paper we'll get an immense circulation."

11. Remember Your Readers: Be Interesting

Beginners were taught to remember their readers: to write in a clear, simple, and interesting manner, so people would want to read -- and instantly understand -- every word. As early as 1888, an article in The Harvard Monthly declared that the first rule for people who wanted to write for newspapers was "to write what the people want to read...."

As a managing editor after the Civil War, John Cockerill helped start that revolution in journalism. Until then, newspaper articles were opinionated and packed with long, convoluted sentences. Cockerill ordered his reporters in Cincinnati to use shorter sentences. Cockerill subsequently moved to the New York World and ordered its reporters to write every story simply, as they would tell it to a friend. Thus, under Cockerill's leadership, the World seemed to be talking to its readers rather than writing over their heads.

Moses Koenigsberg learned to think of his readers while beginning his career in St. Louis. Excited by a large convention, Koenigsberg wrote a fancy story cluttered with phrases like "psychic pulchritude." The Globe-Democrat's managing editor, Joseph McCullagh, was a man of few words. McCullagh called Koenigsberg into his office and said: "Never write to please the writer. Write to please the reader."

Today's editors reiterate that advice. An editor speaking at the University of Minnesota recently complained that some writers treat their readers like slaves, expecting them "to shovel through dull, endless copy." The fact is, she said, most readers aren't that devoted and don't have the time.

12. Learn From Your Editors

Editors had the unpleasant duty of going through their reporters' work "with a judicious yet merciless hand, to prune, amend, and alter it so that it may exactly fit the requirements and space of the paper." Editors admitted that they were tough but felt they also were helpful, providing the guidance beginners needed to improve. Not every beginner appreciated that guidance, however.

Robert Hardy Andrews found that: "Everybody hates editors. Writers especially. They give editors stuff they can't possibly print the way it is, and when the editors make it printable, the writers curse them instead of thanking them."

The changes editors made in stories hurt reporters' pride, suggesting that they failed to do a good job. Some reporters concluded that their editors did not know a good story when they saw one (and ruined every story they handled). Editors responded that their changes improved stories -- and that not one reporter in 10 seemed to know how to write.

Morton Sontheimer, too, advised young writers to be thankful for demanding editors. "Discouraging as it may be," Sontheimer said, "consider yourself lucky if you're starting on a paper that does discipline young writers, editing copy severely, making them rewrite and rewrite until they've done a story well." Sontheimer said it was virtually impossible for beginners to become good writers at newspapers without demanding editors.

Other Important Traits

Briefly, editors wanted reporters who were good writers, but also energetic, enthusiastic, ambitious, confident, intelligent, thorough, resourceful, independent, and truthful. In addition, editors wanted reporters who were hard working and tenacious, even in the face of great hardship or danger. Editors expected reporters to endure any hardship and overcome any obstacle to beat the competition.

Even more importantly, editors expected reporters to obtain the stories they were assigned. Commenting on the importance of punctuality and reliability, editors said:

"A good reporter is the one who gets the story."

"If a reporter gets what he is told to, he is a good reporter; if not, he is no good."

"When a reporter is sent for news, he must get it one way or another. The man who

comes back and says he 'can't find out anything about it' is as much use for newspaper work as the fifth wheel is to a wagon."

Charles Chapin, managing editor of the New York World, suspended or fired reporters for tardiness. "You," he would snarl, "you know 8 o'clock is the hour to report for work around here. It's two minutes past. Suppose you just turn around and go home for a week, without pay."

Discussion and Conclusions

Teaching students to write for the media is difficult. Students must learn, accept, and apply a myriad of unfamiliar rules. Some students resist the rules because they have learned other styles or developed bad habits. Other students seem to believe that the rules are unimportant, reflecting only their teacher or textbook's prejudices. Even more commonly, students fail to do enough rewriting and resent faculty members' corrections. Instead of learning from their teachers' corrections, students look only at their grades.

Few beginners realize that the media's style of writing has evolved over 150 years and serves the media's unique needs. Moreover, the style's primary elements are important for all the media. Rather than fancy writing, editors want simple writing: stories that are clear, concise, specific, and interesting. Editors also insist upon accuracy in grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and fact. Moreover, editors expect everyone to be punctual and dependable. All those requirements are important in advertising, public relations, magazine writing, and broadcasting as well as in news writing.

Students can learn from their predecessors' errors as well as their rules. In the past, beginners learned through a painful process of trial-and-error. Anyone responsible for an embarrassing error was likely to be punished, even fired. Students who understand their predecessors' errors can avoid them. By studying the past, students also can learn about the consequences of their actions: the ways in which they can benefit from the diligent application of journalisms rules – or hurt their careers by ignoring them.

Good writers were rewarded for their effort: given newspapers' best assignments and salaries. Furthermore, good writers who tired of newspaper work were able to find good jobs in related fields.

Mistakenly, some journalism students expect their lessons to be easy, yet history also shows that learning to write for the media never has been easy. Rather, the process requires hard work, practice, persistence, and self-discipline.

Editors' Other Guidelines

Individual editors and newspapers formulated other guidelines to improve their reporters' writing. Here are two examples:

1. William Randolph Hearst wanted his newspapers to be concise, lively, and of interest to the largest possible audience. Instructions Hearst sent his executives included:

  • "There is no room for dullness in today's newspaper. There is no room for excess verbiage. There is no room for elaborate writing."

  • "There may not be room for so many dull papers, but there certainly is room for a bright and brief paper."

  • "Don't allow long introductions to stories or involved sentences."

  • "Don't repeat unnecessarily.... Plunge immediately to the interesting part of the story."

  • "Don't allow exaggeration. It is a cheap and ineffective substitute for real interest."

  • "Reward reporters who can make truth interesting and weed out those who cannot."

  • 2. Henry Justin Smith, managing editor of the Chicago Daily News, formulated five rules for good writing:

FIRST: Care about it tremendously. Get on fire with the idea that writing is fascinating, thrilling, heartbreaking, better than anything in the world.

SECOND: Work like the devil. Take hold of this man-sized job and sweat at it. Hustle.

THIRD: Write! Write all the time, any kind of stuff. Prepare for the thousands of words you are going to write by writing hundreds of thousands.

FOURTH: Hang around fellows who know how to write.

FIFTH: Read everything that stimulates you, but leave the cheap stuff alone and don't bank too much on the best sellers.

Cubs' Flubs

Cubs often flubbed their first assignments, and stories about their errors became legendary. Here are four examples.

1. Reporters were told to write with restraint. One of journalism's most popular legends involves a reporter who violated that rule. On May 31, 1889, a dam collapsed, sending a massive wall of water down a river valley, causing more than 2,000 deaths and widespread property damage in Johnstown, Penn. Amazed by the fact that thousands of people had somehow survived, a young reporter wired this lead to his editor: "God is with the people of Johnstown on the hilltops tonight."

The cub's editor immediately responded: "Drop flood story. Interview God. Rush pictures."

The incident was attributed to many young reporters, including one at the Philadelphia Press. A second version claims the reporter worked for a Chicago newspaper.

2. Another of journalism's legends involves a cub told to cover the wedding of a famous heiress. He returned to his newspaper but did not start writing. The cub's boss asked what happened, and he responded: "No story. The bride didn't show up."

3. Samuel Blythe worked at his father's weekly during the 1880s, then moved to a daily. Assigned obituaries, Blythe contacted about 20 undertakers each day. After covering the beat for about a week, Blythe wrote an obituary for a prominent man but forgot to include his name. Blythe's editor "threw fits and profanity all over the office" but did not fire his inexperienced young reporter.

4. A fourth legend involves an apparently deliberate error. Shortly after being elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Miami, and an assassin fired a bullet that hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was sitting with Franklin in an open car. Everyone near Cermak swore that he said, "Where the hell was that god-damn bodyguard?" John Dienhart, a young reporter from Chicago, wrote that the dying Cermak said, "I'm glad it was me instead of you." Dienhart's version "went out over the wires and into the history books."

Selected References: Books

1. Abbot, Willis. Watching the World Go By. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company, 1934.

2. Andrews, Robert Hardy. A Corner of Chicago. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

3. Blythe, Samuel G. The Making of A Newspaper Man. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1912.

4. Churchill, Allen. Park Row. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1958.

5. Clayton, Charles C. Little Mack of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

6. Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter's Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

7. Diehl, Charles Sanford. The Staff Correspondent. San Antonio, Texas: The Clegg Company, 1931.

8. Dornfeld, A.A. Behind The Front Page. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1983.

9. Gauvreau, Emile. My Last Million Readers. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1941.

10. James, Marquis. The Cherokee Strip. New York: The Viking Press, 1945.

11. King, Homer W. Pulitzer's Prize Editor. Durham, N.C.: Duke, 1965.

12. Koenigsberg, Moses. King News. Freeport, N.Y.: Books For Libraries Press, 1941.

13. Lancaster, Paul. Gentleman of the Press: the Life and Times of an Early Reporter, Julian Ralph of the Sun. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

14. Morehouse, Ward. Just the Other Day. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953.

15. Murray, George. The Madhouse on Madison Street. Chicago: Follett, 1965.

16. Ralph, Julian. The Making of A Journalist. New York: Harper, 1903.

17. Salisbury, William. The Career of a Journalist. New York: B.W. Dodge & Company, 1908.

18. Shaub. Earl L. All In A Day's Work. New York: G.S. Rand Publications, Inc., 1961.

19. Smith, H. Allen. To Hell in A Handbasket. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.

20. Sontheimer, Morton. Newspaperman. New York: Whittlesey House, 1941.

21. St. Clair, Labert. I've Met the Folks You Read About. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1940.

22. St. John, Robert. This Was My World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953.

23. Underwood, Agness. Newspaperwoman. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1949.

24. Walker, Stanley. City Editor. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1934.

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