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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

What I Learned from Richard Nixon   

And why more thinking in the newsroom is crucial for better journalism. (Second of a series) Tue., June 25, 2013.


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.

     

Fifty years ago this summer, I showed up uninvited at my hometown newspaper and announced I was there to be a reporter. The editor, Annie Laurie Kinney, welcomed me and assigned me stories. I've been doing journalism ever since.

On this half century anniversary, here are more of my 50 lessons from 50 years.

11. What meeting Richard Nixon taught me.

President Nixon visited Columbia when I was attending the University of South Carolina there, and I got credentials representing my campus paper, The Gamecock. I was behind the Secret Service lines, watching Nixon work the crowd, when suddenly he turned and headed toward his plane. I was directly in his path, and he stopped as I raised the microphone from my tape recorder.

The only problem: I had no idea what to ask him.

What do you ask a president who suddenly shows up at your side?

I mumbled a nonsense question about whether he had enjoyed his visit. He answered with boilerplate and moved on.

But I learned a valuable lesson: In the presence of newsmakers, always have a question ready.

12. The factor that separates great news organizations from good ones.

It's great editing.

Most newsrooms have several outstanding writers, but few have lots of great editors. That is mostly a function of supply and demand. Far more journalists want to be writers than editors. It's harder to find great editors than great writers.

But in my judgment, it's the work of editors, applying extra layers of leadership, polish and quality control, that most differentiates professional excellence from general noise.

13. The two qualities of great editors.

For some 30 years, I've coached editors in newsrooms around the country. During one long stretch, I helped train dozens of editors from the old Knight Ridder chain. We always asked participants to describe their best editor. They listed all kinds of personalities: tough and gentle, talkative and laconic, hands-on and detached. But most seemed to have two qualities in common:

One: a vision of great journalism and how to make it happen.

Two: an ability to reach reporters as individuals and motivate them to do their best work.

14. What journalists can learn from Dr. Seuss.

As a Dartmouth student in the 1920s, young Ted Geisel worked his way up to editor of the campus humor magazine. One night Geisel and some friends were busted for possessing bootleg gin. Geisel was removed as magazine editor. But according to biographers Judith and Neil Morgan, he figured out a way to contribute anyway. The next issue included a drawing carrying, for the first time, the credit line "Seuss" (Geisel's middle name).

The lesson: Few skills are more important for journalists than problem-solving. At pivotal moments, the great ones find a way forward.

15. A simple lesson about ethics.

One of the best editors I ever worked for, Joe Distelheim, had a quick reply to many questions about ethics: "Do whatever's right."

It's not exactly a joke.

Many ethical situations are complex, but avoiding the bulk of our transgressions (plagiarism, misrepresentation, conflict of interest, unfair dealings with sources or audiences) mostly requires the discipline to do what we know is right.

Nobody is perfect (a good reason to have editors), but our integrity is one of the few things in life that we control almost 100 percent.

We can't much affect how good-looking or athletic or musical we are. But, faced with ethics choices, we alone have the most power over our responses.

16. New media bring additions more than subtractions.

For example, it seems clear that there will be plenty of room for both professional journalists and amateurs as media evolve.

In the new process of putting together news step by step as it happens, amateurs have a huge advantage: They're everywhere. If a train derails, the odds are small that a reporter is on board, but overwhelming that a bright citizen with a smart phone is there.

But pros have little to fear from this. As in most fields, in the long run, professionals have the time, experience, resources, connections and expertise to bring special value to their reports.

17. Nothing is more important than accuracy.

To me this is the mountaintop rule. Accuracy trumps everything else. From embarrassing typos to name misspellings to mangled facts, we forfeit credibility anytime our readers and viewers catch us in errors. In perhaps the biggest study ever done of news credibility, the number one reason found for audience mistrust was "too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes."

18. Advice from a race car champ.

How do we avoid errors?

Junior Johnson was a stock car star who became owner of a top racing franchise. But he still found time to work on the pit crew changing tires for his drivers. The longtime Los Angeles Times racing writer Shav Glick asked him why. Johnson's response works for racing but also for journalism, and anyplace else where success depends on pinpoint detail:

"Ain't nuthin' too small to do right."

19. Facts are sacred, but they aren't always the same as truth.

Getting every detail right can still lead to bad journalism. Facts require context and explanation. Sitting alone, they can mislead.

Here is a fact: When I was the Charlotte Observer's metro editor, we won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for a series done by our metro staff, on brown lung disease.

Here is the truth: The award-winning work was done the year before I became metro editor. I had nothing to do with it. I was indeed the editor when the award was announced, but that fact, in isolation, is deceptive.

20. What I learned from my wife.

Well, obviously, even the Internet doesn't have room for all that.

But here's one example. It was my wife, Laura, who in fact directed the Pulitzer-winning brown lung project. She has subsequently directed another such winner and written two fine books. As I watch her work, I've noticed something she does often. She confers with writers and sources, then gathers her notes and materials, seeks a private place, goes over everything carefully and then devotes long stretches to thinking about it all. I'm almost always impressed by the new insights and connections she finds.

It's hard to get away with thinking in a newsroom. It looks like you're doing nothing, and editors are apt to leap in and assign you some new task.

But I've come to feel strongly that thinking is one of the most underappreciated aspects of great journalism.


Wednesday: All sides aren't always equal, so don't write as if they are. And don't be afraid to use your expertise.