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American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2013

We Need to Revolutionize Online Content…   

…And remember that great writing is a marvelous mix of craft and magic. (Last of a Series) Fri., June 28, 2013.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Fifty years ago this summer, when I wrote my first story for the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the managing editor was a young man named Bill Kinney. His parents owned the paper.

Today, he's still there, as the publisher.

Recently he and his staff cheerfully dug through 50-year-old bound copies to help locate my first bylines. The earliest we found are a feature and a sports story.

The feature is terrible. "Who says there is nothing to do in a small town? I've got news for them, there is plenty to do in this small town...."

But the sports report is solid. "Bennettsville cashed in on heads-up ballplaying and several Dillon miscues Friday night and won the final game of the 1963 Palmetto Majors District II tournament."

That's pretty much how my career went over the next half century: a stinker here, a good one there, some stuff that makes you cringe, some proud moments, lots of great times.

Drawing on it all, here is the last installment of my 50 lessons from 50 years.

41. Writing as craft and magic.

I wrote a book with this title. It contains the best insight about writing I have learned. Good writing comes from craft, the devotion to finding ideas, reporting, organizing, drafting, revising and editing. But great writing usually requires magic, those dazzling breakthrough leaps that erupt unpredictably from inspiration and imagination.

Even on deadline, writers can act to encourage these bolts, applying techniques such as deep thinking, exercising, brainstorming, rehearsing and strategically setting work aside for percolation.

Magic, of course, isn't magic at all. It's hard work of a creative kind that journalists don't employ often enough.

42. Journalism, like life, improves when everyone gets to play.

I came of age in a segregated Southern town where, oddly enough, I was imprinted with the virtues of inclusiveness. We lived in a modest neighborhood where we played ball year-round--baseball to football to basketball. We never had enough equipment or players. So the older kids and twentysomethings who ran our games always welcomed and recruited all comers, especially if they happened to own a baseball that wasn't repaired with duct tape.

We knew nothing of politics; we just needed one another. Our games were models of inclusion--boys and girls, adults and kids, black people and white. At least one of our mainstays was gay. About the only taboos were cheating or playing too rough.

From then on, I never understood why anyone would tell anyone else that they can't play. To have the best games, we need everyone.

Newsrooms in particular benefit from a diverse staff producing diverse content for diverse audiences. It's economically smart. And it's right.

43. Gutenberg's mysterious partner.

Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing back in the 1450s. Less-remembered is his partner, Johann Fust. Fust financed Gutenberg, but the two quickly quarreled. Fust accused Gutenberg of diverting money from printing elegant Bibles into more lucrative projects. According to biographer Albert Kapr, Fust hauled Gutenberg into court in 1455, won, and took over Gutenberg's printing shop.

From these two earliest pioneers, then, comes journalism's most profound and enduring battle: the tension between its competing sacred and secular roles.

44. The biggest danger of corporate journalism.

Today we often frame the tension as public service vs. profit. It roils around supersized, investor-owned media corporations. America's noncommercial news outlets enjoy special advantages. "We don't have to break things up for ads...We just cover the news," Gwen Ifill of "PBS NewsHour" once told me.

But corporate media offer many benefits too: deep resources, professional management, and political and economic clout to defend good journalism. Still, they also can be bureaucratic, skinflint, overcautious and homogenized.

To me, though, the biggest problem by far is the blinkered way we interpret the concept of "fiduciary responsibility." It seems to drive media managers single-mindedly toward maximizing profit for shareholders.

For moral, political and professional reasons, fiduciary responsibility should require good citizenship as much as profitmaking. Few reforms would benefit society more than to better balance profit and public service as corporate obligations under the law.

45. Coach Paul's lesson: The RAT formula for managing.

I assisted Coach Paul with kids' baseball. One season we needed a pitcher. He identified a player who was talented but had seldom pitched. He took him aside, told him we were counting on him to pitch, and taught him to throw a kind of little league curve ball. The player walked away thinking he was a pitcher. He made the all-star team.

This led me to designate the RAT formula of management, for Respect, Attention and Technique.

Writers, like many athletes, are both prima donnas and fragile flowers. They have giant egos and excruciating insecurities. Editors need to start by respecting all that. Then they need to make the time, no matter how busy they are, to give writers intense attention. And they should share specific skills and tools that build technique.

46. The First Amendment exists mostly to protect the irresponsible.

Responsible, polite speech needs little protection. It rarely riles anybody. It's the controversial and irresponsible we need to safeguard. We allow the seemingly outrageous because sometimes it turns out to be right. The earth isn't flat. Monarchs aren't infallible. All people should be treated equally. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people try to adapt the world to them. Therefore, all progress depends on unreasonable people.

47. Software matters more than hardware.

From the printing press through radio, television, cable and the Internet, journalism's progress has always depended on hardware, on technological breakthroughs.

But hardware, necessary as it is, is just the spark. The revolution comes through software--using the hardware for visionary ideas and applications that generate novel, previously unimagined content.

In many ways, we're still in the hardware stage with digital journalism, still fixated on the tools. Journalists have lagged behind other entrepreneurs in imagining revolutionary content. Their momentum should accelerate into developing mind-boggling, irresistible, until-now-impossible information services for their readers. As we have already seen, if journalists don't do this, others will.

48. What the young Joseph Pulitzer teaches us.

Pulitzer, born in Hungary, was recruited to come to the U.S. as a teenager to join the Union Army. How did he get here? He swam.

At least, that's how biographer Denis Brian tells it. The young Pulitzer jumped overboard in Boston harbor and swam ashore--so he could claim the full $300 enlistment bounty and not have to share it with his recruiter.

Call it tenacity or determination or pluck. But this never-give-up quality seems to define outstanding journalists. They swim the extra mile to stay ahead of the competition.

49. My favorite fable about journalism.

According to John Hersey, in the New Yorker's early days a critic complained that unsophisticated theater audiences would "laugh at the drop of a ha on the stage." The pun on "drop of a hat" looked like a typo, so Editor Harold Ross determined to make sure it survived. He wrote "do not change" on galleys. He followed it through the production process. He even climbed into the press, read the plate to make sure "drop the ha" remained, and told printers not to change it. The next day, he picked up the new issue and saw "hat." The printers had changed shifts after he left, and someone proofreading pages had made the change.

The fable, Hersey said, offers two eternal truths. Writers should be willing to risk their lives by climbing into the press to save a word. And they should recognize that no matter what they do, the work will never be perfect.

50. There's always more to learn.

Let's leave this last slot open. New lessons await. The story never ends.



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