30 cranky bits of wisdom on the craft of journalism – Poynter.org

(Stock image from Deposit Photos)

(Stock image from Deposit Photos)

Preface by Roy Peter Clark

Twenty years ago, Poynter published a series of booklets on the mission and craft of journalism. One, a little red book titled “The Sayings of Chairman Mel,” honored the journalism aphorisms of Melvin Mencher, a legendary journalism professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. (If you don’t know why the book was red and its relationship to the title, please drop some acid and travel back to the 1960s.)

In his foreword to the original booklet, Poynter’s Christopher Scanlan wrote:

“Long after the last class, the best teachers continue to instruct. So it is with Melvin Mencher.

“I first heard many of the lessons set forth in this little book when Mr. Mencher was my teacher at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Twenty-three years later [make that 41 now], his words still echo in my head.”

And by osmosis, they echo in my head, too.

In a note to me, Mel recounted that he was asked what journalists need to do to prosper in the digital age. He quoted the great A.J. Liebling: “Climb the stairs. Knock on doors.”

Enjoy “The Sayings of Chairman Mel.”

1. Make journalism out of your experience.
You go shopping. What’s on the lowest shelves; what’s within reach? Why? What are they talking about at the laundromat, in the stands at Little League, in the barbershop, the beauty parlor? When dairy farms went under in the Northeast, a reporter wrote of the farmers who stuck around and could be seen “in the general store buying their morning beer.”

2. Use your moral outrage.
The so-called Tax Reform Act passed by Congress actually benefited hundreds of corporations and specific individuals. Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer spent 15 months digging out the beneficiaries and the cost to ordinary taxpayers. The result: An embarrassed Congress repealed the legislation and passed a tax bill with no breaks for individuals or corporations.

3. Get a good quote up high.
From the Star Democrat, Easton, Maryland:

She said the man sat on the benches in only his boxer shorts for about five minutes, and exposed himself.

“It wasn’t long,” Mrs. Mankin said, “but it was long enough.”

4. Follow the buck.
Track the parking meter dime as it moves through government. Find out what’s done with student activity fees. See who’s getting the bulk of city hall contracts. Are the specifications for cars for the state police written so that only one dealer can successfully bid? You have to be able to read a voucher, a budget, a contract.

5. Don’t miss a deadline.
The journalist’s rhythm is attuned to the sweep of the clock’s second hand. If the copy doesn’t make the deadline, the public is uninformed. And you may be out of a job. Start writing the story on the scene, in the car, taxi, or subway on the way back. When you sit down, you are ready to write.

6. Be a self-starter. Devise your story ideas.
The reporters who enterprise their stories go far. Those who rely on the desk for assignments remain at the bottom of the ladder. Read the ads: The AP reporter who saw a Celebes ape for sale investigated and found a thriving market in rare and exotic animals, despite the protest of the humane societies.

7. Be counter-phobic: Do what you fear or dislike doing.
Ask the sensitive, tough, embarrassing question.

“Some reporters are courageous only when they write, when they are alone with their typewriters,” said Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist who interviewed dictators, presidents, and heavyweight boxers. “They never put a question like this, ‘Sir, since you are a dictator, we all know you are corrupt. In what measure are you corrupt?’”

8. Work seven days a week, 18 hours a day.
How else will you get to know everything: the difference between robbery and burglary; what a mill levy is; who succeeded Richard Nixon in the presidency; why the rate is more informative than the raw number; what the Cultural Revolution was about; the source of the Mississippi; what rap sheets, revenue bonds, stock options, the GDP, the margin of error, pinch hitters, NATO, the 10-K, arraignments, fender-benders, inquests, commercial zoning, creation science, special assessments are.

9. If they like you, you’re doing something wrong.
Respect, yes. Perhaps a bit of fear. But if you are considered a pal, you’ve breached what Walter Lippmann described as ‘air space,’ the distance that should be maintained between the reporter and the source.

10. Misspell a word and the reader presumes you’re stupid. You are.
A spelling error screams for attention, almost as loudly as an obscenity in print. It is like a flaw in a crystal bowl. No matter how handsome the bowl, the eye and mind drift from the sweeping curves to the mistake.

Stupid? Of course: Why not use the dictionary? Spell check? Be wary.

11. Don’t trust an expert.
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” – Harry M. Warner, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1927

“Babe Ruth made a big mistake when he gave up pitching.” – Tris Speaker, Cleveland Indians, 1921

12. Keep your opinions to yourself.

Castro Narrowly Escapes Drowning
Too Bad! Too Bad! Too Bad!
— El Paso Times

13. Check the numbers.
Food chains in Chicago announced price cuts, and papers bannered the announcement:

Inflation Breakthrough–Prices to Drop Here
— Chicago Sun-Times

Prices did go down, but so did weights and quantity. The result: an increase in costs.

14. Don’t report from the office chair.
The Internet and the phone are useful auxiliaries. A.J. Liebling, the master reporter, said the journalist’s job is to climb the stairs and knock on doors.

You can’t see the nervous twitch in the senator’s face on the telephone.

15. Follow the facts wherever they take you.
The old newsroom adage, “Never check out a good story” is entombed with its practitioners, along with its corollary, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Sorry, it wasn’t Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers coach, who first said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” It was Red Sanders, the UCLA football coach.

16. Read your copy closely before turning it in.

“The Pacific Rim column in yesterday’s Business Extra section should have read that Fine Boys is a leading Japanese fashion magazine for guys, not gays. The Chronicle regrets the editing error.”
— San Francisco Chronicle

17. Know everything.

“Another book requested is Ivan Ho – volume 9 of a set of 27 volumes published by the Caxton Publishing Company.”
— Vancouver (B.C.) Sun

18. Put human interest in your copy.

“A Riverside Road woman reported to police September 25 at 10:37 a.m. that a dog was lying on the ground near Underhill Road.
“The woman didn’t know if the dog was dead, and was afraid to approach it.
“The dog later got up and moved to a shadier spot, police said.”

19. Good writers abound. Be a good reporter.
Tom Wolfe, former newspaper reporter and author of “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities”, says reporting is “the weak link in American journalism right now. And it is, oddly enough, one of the least discussed. But reporting is the heart of everything.”

20. Don’t fear using the word ‘said.’
Those who relentlessly fish for synonyms for “said” usually come up with guppies: “Melvin,” she hissed. When tempted, remember Ring Lardner’s line in one of his short stories: “Shut up he explained.”

21. Write tightly.
“Newspapering is knowing what to leave out and condensing the rest.”

22. Get the details.
“Which hand held the gun?” – Editor’s question to young reporter covering a homicide.

23. Dig, dig, dig.
Journalism isn’t stenography. Get behind the handout, the speech, the report.

24. Don’t tell us when you can show us.
In three sentences, this scene captures teenage romance:

“They had met cruising the loop between Fourth and Fifth Streets in Eureka. She fell in love with Wes’s pickup truck, then fell in love with Wes. Wes gave her an engagement ring the day she graduated from high school.”
— Time-Standard (Eureka, California)

25. You can always get a job if you know how to write a lead.

“KAMPALA – A hand grenade exploded on board a passenger train killing a Uganda Army soldier who was toying with it and two civilian passengers.”
– The Times, London

26. Do not fear telling the truth.

“Researchers say that the public is responsible for rising health care costs as people acquire illnesses that cannot be cured easily or cheaply.”
– Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette

27. When in doubt, check it out.

“An article in Saturday’s Local section incorrectly reported that a suspect identified as ‘Fnu Lnu’ had been indicted by a federal grand jury. ‘Fnu Lnu’ is not a name. FNU is a law enforcement abbreviation for ‘first name unknown,’ LNU for ‘last name unknown.’ Officials knew the suspect only by the nickname ‘Dezo.’”
– Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia)

28. Don’t take the easy way out.
Check the handout. Verify the press release….Who cares? Whoa. Hold the mayo. We care, as journalists, and so do the readers who wonder if you can’t get the little things right, how can you be trusted on the complex things. Check and double-check.

29. Follow your hunches and your hormones.
Be basic, visceral. The governor wears suits made in Italy, is barbered and manicured daily. Hunch: He’s getting money on the side. That was the conclusion Jerry Landauer drew when he saw Spiro Agnew when Agnew was governor of Maryland. The hunch proved accurate. Agnew was getting payoffs from contractors.

30. It is immoral not to be excellent in your craft.

After World War II, Melvin Mencher used the G.I. Bill to study journalism at the University of Colorado. On graduation, he took a job as a reporter at the Albuquerque Tribune. He spent a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. He would move to California and report for the McClatchy Newspapers out of Fresno. Out of the blue, he was invited to teach journalism at the University of Kansas. In 1963 he joined the faculty at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of “News Reporting and Writing.”