While students today need to know everything from GPS to HTML5 to
prepare for careers as journalists, I never let a class escape my clutches without acquainting them with eight Key Quotes to guide them through their careers.
Unlike the flavor-of-the-day trends and technologies that ebb and flow through many newsrooms and
journalism curricula, the Key Quotes are enduring (and endearing), because they remind scribes of the core values that produce effective public-service journalism and great storytelling.
Needless to say, the quotes are so witty and wise that I did not author them myself. I culled several from some of my generous mentors, and the rest come from the received wisdom that suffuses most newsrooms.
And, now, without further ado, here’s what I tell my students at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley:
1. “A newspaper’s job is to set the community’s agenda,” said Howard M. Ziff, a distinguished former Chicago newsman who was one of my journalism professors at the University of Illinois. By that, Ziff meant a news organization’s job is to identify important issues, ask tough questions, dig up the answers, and fearlessly publish them.
2. “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the
afflicted” brilliantly reminds journalists to hold great powers to close account, while compassionately seeing to the welfare of the marginalized members of society. The quote originally was penned by Finley Peter Dunne, a legendary 19th century Chicago newsman.
3. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” advised Arnold A. Dornfeld, the legendary night city editor of the City News Bureau of Chicago. To emphasize the importance of getting all the facts and getting them right, Dornie required rookie reporters to call their mothers in his presence to confirm whether she indeed loved them. Usually, they did.
4. “If you don’t know the lead, ask yourself, ‘What will happen next?'” This is another
Ziff-ism, and it is more meaningful than ever for newspapers, which look like klutzes when they repackage day-old news that was broken originally by WikiLeaks or Twitter. This quote emphasizes the obligation of a news organization, especially a newspaper, to penetrate important developments by examining their causes, significance, and consequences.
5. “Never let the facts get in the way of a story.” This line has been around so long that no one can say who coined it, but I heard it first from Harlan Draeger, a now-retired Chicago newspaperman. “Every good story has to be told like a story,” Draeger said. “There has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. There have to be good guys and bad guys.” A superb reporter and elegant writer, Draeger always got the facts into his stories. They just didn’t get in the way.
6. “Kill your darlings,” advised the late Gene Graham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was another of my professors at the University of Illinois. Graham was arguing for clear reporting and concise writing that puts the priority on informing readers, not flaunting the rhetorical aerobatics of a self-indulgent writer. In other words, he was telling journalists not to let their egos get in the way of the story.
7. “Never write a headline longer than a newsboy can shout,” growled the late Bill Rising on my very first night at the copy desk of the Chicago Daily News. That was one of two pieces of unsolicited advice. The other, offered in more colorful language than can be reported here, was to not engage in intimate physical relationships with female co-workers. Rising’s point on headlines, which works equally well for websites, graphics, video, iPad apps, and other media, is that well-conceived, uncluttered communication works best. His second admonition, which I followed far more assiduously than the first, is well taken, too.
8. “When you run a picture of a nice, clean-cut, all-American girl, get [the sizzle] above the fold,” thundered Al Neuharth to the editors assembling one of the earliest editions of USA Today. Neuharth, who back then was CEO of Gannett, showed up in the newsroom every night to kibitz when the first edition came off the press. When the page-one picture of a female cheerleading team was positioned too low for his taste, he ordered the paper to be remade in conformance with the previously stated principle. The quote, which originally contained a crude reference to a portion of the female anatomy, was reported in Peter Prichard’s book, “The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today.” Neuharth’s point – never more salient than it is today – was that good marketing never hurt the financial health of a news organization.
Neuharth also is the guy who observed that “only cream and SOBs rise to the top.” But we’ll save that one for a future dissertation on media-management skills.