Friday, October 29, 2010

Important Lessons on Thinking and Writing

 I’ve always been fascinated with newspapers.  As a youngster, I collected titles cut from the (usually) tops of daily newspapers across the country.  These included the long-shuttered New York Mirror, Journal-American, World Telegram and Herald Tribune; Boston Traveler; Philadelphia Bulletin; Washington Star and Times-Herald; Miami News; and Los Angeles Examiner.  My brother and I waited at the front door for our father to arrive home from work so we could grab the Daily News and split it up.

My newspaper work ended 43 years ago after covering freshman football for the Brown and White at Lehigh University.  During my publishing and public relations careers, I’ve worked for former journalists and dealt with reporters in several capacities.  The continued demise of the daily newspaper is tragic for several reasons, one of which is what could be the end of the profession’s dynamics.  I learned plenty working with reporters writing articles for my publications and for former reporters who taught me how to think like a journalist.  Today’s professionals are not receiving this type of training and it’s only going to get worse. 

Some 35 years ago, I was on the editorial staff of the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum), which mainly consisted of writing and editing its quarterly magazine, Chicago History.  The Society had an Editorial Board, and Herman Kogan, at the time cultural news editor at the Daily News, was its most active member.  His son, Rick, writes for the Chicago Tribune.  We excerpted a portion of Yesterday’s Chicago, the first father-son collaboration, in the magazine.  The author description read that they “co-authored” the book.  A few days after the article was published, Herman, a scrupulous editor, called up and hollered at me.  “You can’t ‘co-author’ anything,” he bellowed.  “You are ‘the co-author of’!”  To this day, I never use the verb form of “co-” but this is another losing usage battle, ranking with “hopefully” and “neither/nor” vs. “either/or.”  Herman called the next day and apologized profusely for his tirade; noise from the building renovation had driven him crazy.

The greatest character I met in my career was A.A. Dornfeld . . . but he was known only as “Dornie.”  He worked at the fabled City News Bureau from 1926 to 1970, mostly as night editor because he didn’t like the people on the day shift.  He trained a number of well-known journalists, including Mike Royko, and one who became famous in another discipline, Claus Oldenburg.  Dornie was loved, feared and respected by all who knew him.  The instruction to reporters, widely but wrongly attributed to him, was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”  He would show up at the museum to discuss his articles in a flannel shirt, suspenders, wood-chip flecked pants and work boots, fresh from his retirement business, firewood.  Dornie rather distained me until I helped him push his car out of the snow during a freak April Fool’s Day blizzard.

City News (or City Press, as the old-timers called it) was the basis for Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page.  I was surprised that Chicago History hadn’t done an article on its storied history, but Dornie felt he couldn’t get a handle on all the information to distill it into a 5,000-word piece.  My editor and I got after him and the result was “The City News Bureau” in the Summer 1976 issue.  This led to the publication of his book Behind The Front Page (renamed Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!): The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago.  Dornie wrote in his copy to me: “I understand that you were, through three removes, the ultimate springboard for this book.  Don’t be downhearted though – you may live it down.”

Two gentlemen – both sadly departed – taught me valuable writing and editing lessons.  Dennis Waite, a former assistant business editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, imparted the ways of daily deadline discipline with direct and honest criticism (see “A Tribute to Dennis Waite” entry).  Together at The Financial Relations Board, then the largest investor-relations agency in the U.S., we cranked out news releases, company summaries, investor presentations and annual reports that won accolades from several audiences.  Teaching me to think smart was just as important as his instruction on writing.

Philip Justin Smith was the son and grandson of great Chicago newspapermen.  Phil, who broke the story on Richard Speck’s arrest while a 20-year-old college intern at United Press International, had the greatest knack for making sense out of large amounts of information and distilling it down quickly to a few salient points.  Phil, a self-styled curmudgeon despite only being in his 50s, prohibited fuzzy thinking.  He was not a perfectionist, only because at some point he would say, “Don’t show it to me again.  I’ll only tinker with it.”  Like Dennis, he never held back, for which I am grateful.  I saw him for the last time on September 12, 2001, and even as we walked into town for coffee, we knew the end was near.  He passed away at age 56 one week later.  Phil was another multi-dimensional personality, a fearless professional and the best at what he did.

Perhaps the cutback in newspaper staffs will create new teachers who aren’t afraid to show students and young professionals that access to a keyboard doesn’t make you a writer.  I had young staff members for which English seemed a second language.  They could use the tough love of a Kogan, Dornie, Waite and Smith.  If you like my writing, you have them to thank.

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