A couple of weeks ago we, the ink-stained wretches whose thankless labors bring you the Business Journal every Friday, spent the better part of three days with a writing coach.
Our bosses, here and in Minneapolis (where Dolan Media is headquartered), presumably hoped that a little coaching would cure some of our bad habits and, at best, learn us to rite real good!
We dreaded it. C’mon, we already know how to write! What could we learn from some itinerant coach/critic? Remember the old saw: Those who can write do — and those who can’t, criticize.
The coach turned out to be a smart, amiable veteran reporter, Jim Stasiowski.
At the beginning of the coaching session, Stasiowski asked us all a question.
“What’s the first and most important thing that a newspaper does?”
We gave various replies: “Report the news fairly and accurately,” “Be a responsible member of the community,” “Be a respected and indispensable source of information” — all pretty good answers, I thought.
Nope, said Stasiowski. It’s none of the above.
“A newspaper’s first job is to make money,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it won’t be around for long — and you won’t be able to do all of those good things you’re talking about.”
We all nodded and smiled.
Yet Stasiowski’s remark revealed a fault line, a place of clashing priorities and mutual incomprehension that has always defined the newspaper business.
Just as Louis XIV said “L’etat, c’est moi,” reporters and editors think “the newspaper –that’s us!”
We tell ourselves that content defines a newspaper, that we’re the reason that you, the readers, pick up the publication. Without smart, interesting, cleverly edited stores and columns, the newspaper would neither thrive nor survive.
But the folks who sell ads see things differently.
They know how hard it is to sell space. They can’t understand why we in the editorial department seem to enjoy making their jobs even harder. We write unflattering stories about our biggest advertisers, make fun of politicians whom many of our readers support and write long, boring stories about stuff that nobody cares about.
And we’re resentful as well.
Why do good ad salespeople make more than we do? Why does the world reward smooth-talking salesmen/women with chateaubriand and Chivas Regal, while noble, selfless, crusading journalists have to survive on Pabst Blue Ribbon and Ramen noodles?
Later in the coaching session, Stasiowski told us about Jimmy Breslin’s most famous column.
Breslin, the legendary columnist for the New York Post, was covering President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Rather than cover the funeral itself — the riderless horse, the solemn dignitaries, the grieving widow — Breslin went elsewhere. He wrote about the man who dug the president’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was a powerful, affecting and utterly original column. It has inspired generations of reporters to look elsewhere, to refrain from covering the obvious and to find the story behind the story.
And it shows why reporters so often seem removed from the American mainstream.
Reporters are observers, not participants. We want a fresh angle, a way to write something smart and original. What we’re writing about is less interesting to us than what we write. We write about people, about sports, about politics, about events and about the communities, real and figurative, that surround us. In a sense, we don’t do anything.
We don’t teach classes, we don’t start businesses, we don’t build houses, we don’t pave streets, we don’t drive cabs, we don’t fight fires and we sure don’t sell ads.
We watch, we observe and we write about it.
And through the years, thanks to close contact with powerful politicians and businessmen, we become angry and cynical. Why, we wonder, do these self-important dumbos run things? Why do they have money and power, while much better people (like us) have none?
That’s why columnists and reporters who lean to the right so despise Bill Clinton, while those on the left vent their spleen on George W. Bush. They just can’t believe that these degenerate, ignorant, malicious scoundrels ever got elected to anything, much less to the highest office in the land.
But most Americans are doers, not observers. They know how hard it is to accomplish something.
Try running a company, whether it’s a Pakmail franchise or General Electric, and you’ll see how hard it is to succeed in business. Try driving a FedEx truck 14 hours a day, and you’ll see what work is. Try being the Roto-Rooter guy, and you’ll understand what it is to have a tough, dirty job. Try making 50 cold calls a day, and you’ll understand what it takes to be a salesperson.
These are the folks who voted for Clinton or Bush. They’re a lot more forgiving than we are, and maybe a lot wiser.
They know that it’s a lot harder to build than to tear down, and that you often have to make quick decisions based on limited evidence. They know that the president’s struggles mirror their own, and that he’s doing his best.
But we don’t.
We write, we observe, we analyze, we comment. And that’s our problem.
Maybe, instead of taking the time to improve our craft, we should learn more about the rest of the world, as did Terje Langland, who used to write for the Independent.
A brilliant, incisive reporter, Terje won a dozen journalism awards during his brief time at the Indy. And then he quit, and moved to Japan to teach school. He was good before he left and he’ll be better if ever he returns to journalism.
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again. Because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, he who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”