Editorial: Who’s Your Ben Bradlee?

By: Nu Yang

Every journalist has that editor. The one who pushed, mentored, challenged and motivated you to become a better journalist. For some reporters, that editor was Ben Bradlee. The longtime Washington Post editor passed away Oct. 21 at the age of 93. After his death, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters Bradlee famously led during the Watergate scandal, remembered their editor as “fierce” and a “truth seeker above all.” Bradlee not only transformed the field of journalism, but he transformed the lives of two young reporters.

For me, my Ben Bradlee was a man named Bill Brown. I started my journalism career a few years out of college as a staff writer for the weekly Allegan County News in Allegan, Mich. Bill was a terrific editor, who always kept his door open for his reporters and for readers. He was known for two things: his op-ed column that wasn’t afraid to call out local politicians and cause a little bit of debate to circulate around the county, and his catch phrase “Not bad for an old guy.”

Thanks to Bill, I learned how to ask the right questions, tell a good story and build contacts in the community. I welcomed visits from Bill whenever he stopped by my desk to discuss a story, but as a young reporter, I don’t think I fully appreciated that extra attention. Looking back, I can now understand he was helping me develop better stories.

Bill was in his seventh year as editor when he passed away in November 2008 at the age of 77. When you work for a small newspaper, you not only write the stories but you layout the newspaper as well—and I was the one tasked with laying out Bill’s obituary the week after he passed. It was a very somber experience, but on the other hand, the paper was also filled with fond memories of Bill written by staff members. I saved a hard copy of that issue and recently pulled it out of storage in order to write this editorial. Those fond memories came rushing back to me, in particular a moment I mentioned in my write-up where I shared one of the last things Bill told me in the office before he became ill. He said I wrote with heart, and that’s something I’ve taken and applied in all my writing endeavors.

And isn’t that the best way to honor those editors who have molded and shaped us?  To carry their encouraging, and sometimes tough, words into the stories we put out? I think so.

In this month’s issue, we discuss the future of storytelling (bit.ly/1yd54it) and the many emerging platforms and technologies now available. Somewhere, there’s a young journalist updating a Twitter account, creating a video gallery, or coding a website page, but rest assured, there’s an editor telling him he can do it better.


We also recognize our EPPY winners (bit.ly/1BDBcCi) this month, and we’re reminded of the new and exciting things occurring in newsrooms around the world. In some of them, editors are now known as content strategists, but their role should remain the same. To push, mentor, challenge and motivate journalists to improve in their craft.

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2 thoughts on “Editorial: Who’s Your Ben Bradlee?

  • December 13, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    The title of your editorial invites a panoramic inspection of the newspaper industry, while the body of your editorial, on the other hand, encourages a much-narrower perspective. Possibly the title will invite more comments. At least, that is what prompted me to respond. There is some sympathy—maybe too much sympathy—for the view that a little improvement in the news craft is better than nothing. However, since you mention the name of Ben Bradlee and by implication the standard he set or was his lodestar, it does not appear that he was satisfied with just a “little improvement” in the newspaper business. Certainly, many of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded since his news team’s Watergate coverage bear the same name, but they appear to be in the minor leagues of news reporting. Many are in the minor leagues because the reporters, editors and publishers behind those particular news projects distract attention from the news stories they actually buried and/or continue to bury. They do not give voice to the unrepresented. They disregard news tips that conflict with their political agendas. They do not comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, according to the standard Mr. Bradlee is credited with meeting. They curry the favor of their off-the-record news sources without any assurance that those “official sources” are not mixing in a little disinformation from time to time, made credible of course by the little bit of reliable information they furnish periodically. Then, too, the American public does not know which of those reporters, editors and publishers represent the current crop on the government payroll, much less how heavily government agencies have invested in the news operations that are publicly-traded corporations. Now, some will have their followings who insist that so and so is made of the same cloth as Ben Bradlee. But, given the standards making for genuine improvement in the newspaper industry–which does not include a devotion to the selective reporting of news and information–this writer, looking outward to survey the field, sees no equal to Ben Bradlee. Gary P. Salamone/Editor-in-Chief Continental Features/ Continental News Service 501 W. Broadway Plaza A, PMB# 265 San Diego, CA 92101 [publishers of Continental Newstime general-interest newsmagazine, covering the unreported/under-reported world and national (U.S.) news/information]

  • November 13, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    Hi there,

    I, too, am fond of the cherished memories of Bill. I have been searching every corner of the Internet for any relevant piece of information regarding Bill, with hopes of finding a clipping of one of his columns. I long to read just one thing that he wrote. What I wish even more than that is for me to be able to show him my passion for writing, something he helped cultivate in me as a young girl. I wonder what he would say… how he would critique my work? I am thankful to have stumbled across some links, such as this, composed by a few of his predecessors and co-workers!

    -Christine M.
    (Granddaughter of Bill Brown)


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