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From AJR,   February/March 2007  issue

A Passionate Affair With Newspaper Reporting   


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) 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.

     

Front-Page Girl
By Doris O'Donnell
The Kent State University Press
259 pages; $22.95


In times of tribulation, nothing beats a good jolt of joy. For beleaguered journalists losing touch with the exultation of their early news days, "Front-Page Girl" may be just the tonic.

It is an unabashed valentine to the thrill and wonder of working more than half a century as a reporter in your hometown.

Doris O'Donnell took her first daily newspaper job in Cleveland in 1944 and retired in 1996. Over those eventful years, she covered cops and courts (becoming one of the nation's experts on the once-infamous Sam Sheppard murder case), mayors and Mafiosi, obits and riots. Her editors dispatched her to travel in Russia and write about its people (those were the days!) and to crisscross the country following up on the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

One assignment had her living with an east Cleveland African American family and writing a three-week series about the experience. Another sent her traveling with the Cleveland Indians; banned from the all-male press box in Boston, she lured the usually surly superstar Ted Williams into advising her, "Go on up there. Don't let them push you around."

She did more than her share of what she labels as "hare-brained assignments," including driving a cab, working as a jail matron, riding a circus elephant and piloting a diesel train engine. She wrote about it all. Once, she had 16 bylines in one day.

Far from a soft-news niche writer, however, O'Donnell also specialized in tough investigative work. She tracked shady contractors, drug dealers, voting fraud and racketeers.

She is definitely hard to pigeonhole. At one point, she writes primly of herself and fellow female reporters: "We thought of ourselves as 'young ladies,' and we presented ourselves in such a manner." But then she tells us of growing up with bootleggers living next door and a boyfriend whose father had died in Prohibition violence. "We dated only on Sunday nights, when we saw a movie and had a chocolate milk shake," she reports.

"Then we drove around collecting his late father's share of money owed the family from downtown saloons."

From all indications, she loved every crazy second of her time in journalism.

"This is a story of my dream," O'Donnell writes, "which began more than six decades ago when I became madly, insanely obsessed with becoming a newspaper reporter."

And later: "I had a wild, passionate affair with my job... I even met and spoke to Princess Elizabeth before she was queen. But I would never have swapped my job for hers."

And later: "The only thing I ever wanted in my life was a newspaper job."

This pure passion is by far the book's greatest strength, and it is truly inspirational.

On the other hand, it is important to say what this book is not.

It isn't especially well written. O'Donnell sometimes rambles and repeats herself. On just one page, she uses the clichés "hung up my hat," "whirling dervish" and "one-man band."

The book also isn't necessarily a model for reporters. At several points, O'Donnell appears to have eagerly cooperated with various authorities, even the CIA. She worked for a time in public relations for a Republican mayor in Cleveland, and also signed on for a while at the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Tribune-Review, where she and her husband worked for the controversial conservative activist Richard Mellon Scaife. As she writes cryptically, they found themselves "reporter-wise, more in tune with Scaife than the young staffers."

She also feuded with Democratic Mayor Carl Stokes, who sued her for libel in a case she reports was eventually dropped.

Oddly, O'Donnell quotes almost nothing from her work. While she vividly describes the excitement of chasing stories, she gives little evidence of the finished products. For instance, she tells an amazing tale of tracking down the gun used to kill Robert Kennedy. She bumps into a grouchy detective, talks him into revealing the name of the gun's owner, and learns the owner gave the gun to his daughter who gave it to a teenage neighbor who gave it to a guy named Joe, who turns out to be Sirhan B. Sirhan's brother. It's great sleuthing, and the story won awards. But she never quotes a word of it.

So while it is hard to evaluate her journalism, it's easy to admire her enthusiasm and to see it as a partial antidote for today's angst. One rarely quotes the dedication page in a review, but O'Donnell's is pithy and poignant. She dedicates the book to her late husband, her editor and her newspaper colleagues, and adds, speaking for many of us as we look back: "We had it all."