"There is something about him that suggests if Otis Chandler hadn't existed, Ernest Hemingway would have created him."
- The Christian Science Monitor
When I was first creating this course, I flew to California to meet one of the country's most famous newsmen, Otis Chandler, Phillips Academy Class of 1946. At Andover he had been a good guy and a great athlete, and after Andover he became a world-class shot-putter and surfer.
In 1960, he took over as publisher of his family's newspaper, The Los Angeles Times—which, at the time and for generations before, had been a notoriously awful newspaper, full of biased news and compromised stories, and no one in the publishing world expected much different from the young blonde hunk who took the paper's reins at age 33.
But he shocked the publishing world by transforming the rag into an outstanding newspaper. You can read about him in the book, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty, or read Hendrick Hertzberg's review of that book in The New Yorker.
I met Chandler in his private museum, a warehouse filled with glamorous vintage automobiles and dioramas featuring animals he had shot on his many adventures. He was tall and imposing even at age 74 and immensely charming. I told him about my plans for an Andover journalism course, and as I was talking, I was thinking about what was then the beginnings of a crisis in the American press, as the new model of digital journalism was just coming into being—and the old model of print and ink newspapers was just becoming vulnerable to the massive changes wrought by the Internet. Subscriptions fell, and advertising revenue fell in response. Media companies slashed their budgets by closing bureaus and laying off reporters and editors; even family-owned newspapers with a commitment to public service had to cut their budgets as they wrestled with how to shutter their expensive printing presses and deliver quality journalism in some profitable way on the web. Editors had to cover more territory and gather more information with fewer people; at a certain point, they had to turn their backs on stories they just didn't have the resources to pursue. Talk radio stations and 24-hour TV news shows meanwhile had to fill hours and hours of airtime with something inexpensive to produce; they padded their news with recycled sound bites, entertainment stories, trivia and gossip, and hours upon hours of commentary.
And yet more woes tumbled through my head: some journalists are lazy or dishonest or happy to pander to the people they cover, and nobody likes to read anymore, and everyone can't get enough of celebrities, and so on and so on—a real kaleidoscope of nightmarish thoughts. And next thing I knew, I was telling Otis Chandler that I wondered if I should even create a course in print journalism. Maybe the basic skills of reporting and writing for a newspaper were not skills that would benefit my students one single bit.
Believe me, I hadn't intended to get so confessional. It was all a little awkward, frankly, with the grizzlies and bighorns staring away as I blabbed at one of the most significant figures in American publishing history. Not to mention that I was breaking the first rule of interviewing. (First Rule of Interviewing: The person you interview should be talking, and you should be shutting up and taking notes.) But when I started my confession, he encouraged me to talk. And the more I talked, the more still he sat and listened. Then he said, "No, you're doing the right thing."
Otis Chandler died in 2006 before he could keep his promise to visit our class. But he gave me advice, and I'm keeping that. He said the crisis in American journalism is real: media companies want profits, news budgets are shrinking, advertisers are moving to the Internet, people like to watch TV. Still, he said, newspapers are important—the most important journalism of all. When people want a comprehensive understanding of something in their world, they turn to the papers. They also enjoy reading strong writing about all sorts of interesting and meaningful things.
Chandler was talking about hard copy newspapers, but his words back then applied to online versions of newspapers, too—a story is a story (is a story), no matter how it's delivered. He said I should teach my students to become the reporters the country's best news organizations want to hire. Teach them to report and write, he said, and if they end up making journalism a career, they should also become expert in one other subject—science, medicine, religion, technology—because these subjects will make news in the future and will need intelligent coverage from journalists with real expertise. What the press needs now, more than ever, he said, are smart and ethical young journalists coming up through the ranks. You teach them, he said. The country needs them.
In the years since then—nearly a decade now—the digital media revolution has swept away traditional journalism and all the old business models that went with it. We are in a radically new media world, a world still wildly in flux. Yet what Otis Chandler said to me remains utterly true. In fact, more than ever, the press today needs smart and ethical young journalists who can gather information from quality sources and evaluate the material—raw data, opinion, citizen journalism, propaganda, spin—that bombards us constantly from the web. The press needs these journalists, and the country needs them, too.
The Requirements for Success
In a week or so, you'll start reporting for this class. You'll write articles and, if they're any good, offer them to your school newspaper. So in a week or so, you won't only be a student learning about journalism—you'll be a journalist, practicing the craft. You won't have any credentials, but interestingly, you don't need any. In this country, you need a license to practice dentistry, or drive a car, or run a beauty salon, but you don't need one to be a newspaper reporter and inflict your version of events on your community.
I always found this fascinating, given how much more damage you can do with a newspaper than with a manicure. So even though a real license for this work does not exist, I am inventing one, which you will need in order to succeed in this line of work (and in this class). To earn the license, you must:
1. Know The Post's Principles
The Washington Post is one of the finest newspapers in the nation and the world. For a very long time, it was owned by the Meyer family who, along with the Sulzberger family of The New York Times, embodied the highest ideals of American journalism. Most importantly(!), it's where Gary Lee, Phillips Academy Class of '74, worked.
Gary Lee is handsome and beautifully well spoken with a soft voice that compels a listener—and you should see how he dresses. If you plan to go toe-to-toe with the Soviets during the collapse of communism, you had better be wearing some excellent shoes, which I am sure Lee was when he did. At The Post, he has been a political reporter, a foreign correspondent, and a bureau chief, and now he is one of their star travel writers.
When a few students and I visited him in Washington several years ago, he gave us a tour of The Post's newsroom. Then he sat us down at a conference table. It was a long table. He slid us each a reporter's notebook. Have you ever held one of these? They are fabulous but they make you nuts. They're long and thin, with the twirly wire on top, so you can write all the way down the little pages without banging your pinkie into a wire. They were designed not for this convenience but because they were slim enough to fit in a man's back pocket, or inside his sport coat. And even now, when women are also journalists (with big purses), everyone uses the slim, old reporter's notebooks with the wire on top, because they're so cool and easy to write on.
Because of their design, however, you can fill a page with notes and then flip it over the wire to start on a fresh page—BUT you can also swivel the notebook instead. And then, if you aren't careful, you'll soon be flipping your pages essentially backward.
And, even if you are careful, you can nonetheless lose control of your notebook because your source is talking quickly—he's the fire chief, he's trying to stop a conflagration—and in between barking orders to the firemen, he's telling you that the combustible agents might indicate the possibility of arson, or something like that. And you're racing after him and his words, trying to get them down, writing frantically, messily, flipping your notebook this way and that. The scene is chaos. There's fire over there, water spray here, flashing lights everywhere, and fire hoses underfoot (they are enormous, these hoses, as wide as sewer pipes, and made of a rough canvas that will break your ankle). You are stumbling about, scrambling after the chief. But stumble ahead you do, and again the chief says something like "mumble, mumble combustible," before he says, "Look, lady, get back behind the yellow tape!" The next fireman you grab tells you yeah, they're pretty sure it's arson but you can print only whatever the chief said. Okay, no problem, you've got the chief's quotes in your notebook. You journey back to your desk in the newsroom, but as you're trying to translate your notes into a story, you find that everything is a blur, literally! The quotes that overrun one page might continue here, or maybe here—it's not that easy to tell, any of it might be logical—and what about these words, the ones you wrote squished and sideways in the margin? Is that still the fire chief talking? Or the bystander? Not that any of this has happened to me...
But back to the conference table at The Washington Post. Gary Lee handed us each a reporter's notebook. Then he put both hands on the table and leaned forward, as if he were about to push himself up. But actually he was just looking at us, pretty closely. Maybe trying to determine if we had what it took for this line of work. Then he told us that we were learning a noble profession—that a good newspaper is vital to society. He said that the ideal paper contains two types of stories on its front page every day: the lede story, containing the day's most important news, which every citizen should read, and a "buzz story," containing the day's most interesting, exciting, fascinating, or amusing news, which every citizen would desire to read. To successfully find and report both those stories, he said, the journalists at The Washington Post consciously commit, every single day, to the standards of the paper's founder, Eugene Meyer.
Here are Mr. Meyer's principles. He delivered them in a speech on March 5, 1935. They are on a plaque in the newspaper's front lobby; the reporters and editors pass by them several times a day:
- The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.
- As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.
- What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old.
- The newspaper's duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners.
- In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good.
- The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.
Gary Lee and his colleagues at The Post take these principles very seriously, and so should you—learn them by heart.
Don't get grumpy! You've memorized Shakespeare, you've memorized clumps of The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English)—you can learn these principles. Plus, they are as graceful as any literature ("observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman"), though if you aren't in the mood to memorize them, you may paraphrase them instead. But whatever you do, know them by heart; this will help you internalize them.
Among the students visiting The Post with me was Clem Wood '04, who was at the time Editor in Chief of The Phillipian. After Andover, he studied classics at Harvard, so right away you can guess he is exceptionally bright. And he also has great courage. He stood up to people who tried to intimidate him—adults who wanted him to do things their way and students who wanted him to run articles he didn't think were clear enough or fair enough to run.
Once, a student came flying into The Phillipian newsroom and went berserk, screaming that his (poorly written) commentary article had better be published or this was bullsh--, it was censorship. And Clem stood in the middle of the room, perfectly impassive, never flinching (chairs were being scraped and shoved around), never losing eye contact with the student. Finally, Clem said, "I heard you, and I'm not going to run it." And that was that.
So Clem was brave as well as bright, but what made him such a good editor, I think, is that he understood how, elementally, all of journalism is an act of character, and every journalist works with some deliberate understanding of the power of the press and his or her relationship to it.
Clem knew—as Gary Lee's colleagues at The Post know and as you know now, too—that every decision you make as a journalist is, in essence, an ethical decision, and you will make those decisions wisely if you have a code to guide you, one you understand and believe in. Clem made a conscious decision to be a thorough reporter and an aware and careful editor committed to The Post's principles; you will have a code, too. It should be a deliberate code, something that actually guides you as you pursue and write your stories and edit them. Some may choose to be guided by a code of greed, or vanity, or, god forbid, the code of "let's use the power of the press to 'get' people I dislike." Of course, they will reveal that code in their work. (The code of "do the least possible," too—that's a really transparent one.) But I think you should adopt Eugene Meyer's code over the others. And that's why I want you to learn the principles.
2. Commit to the Truth
The most important of Mr. Meyer's focused and elegant principles is the first one. His newspaper's mission is to "tell the truth to the extent that it can be ascertained," and that should be your mission too.
Newspapers are non-fiction documents. They are a public record of a society's experiences, and they become, over time, the narrative of a society's history. Readers of a newspaper trust that it publishes the truth; if what is printed is untrue, that trust has been betrayed. And then of course the power of the press is eroded, and the democracy suffers, for if readers don't believe what they read, they won't respond. They won't act, won't vote, won't call their congressmen and women to say something should be done about the slavery in Africa. They won't even believe the slavery exists.
So newspapers take great pains to get their stories right. But newspapers are not machines; they are created by humans doing their jobs, so of course there are mistakes and errors in papers all the time. The important point is: the mistakes can't be deliberate. They can't be lies, falsifications, distortions, or deceptions. And when the mistakes are discovered, they must be corrected immediately, to set the public record straight.
So if you want to write for a newspaper, you must be committed right from the start to seeking the truth to the extent that you can find it. And you can't go off pretending to seek the truth, while really you're out to gather a few facts and jot down a few notes and race to the keyboard to write something gorgeous that people will read and swoon over and then ask you out on dates. Because if that's your motivation, you'll probably overwrite in the first place. Far more importantly, you won't have really thought through your story or done the careful work of reporting it thoroughly, and you won't bring the truth home to your editor. You'll bring some approximation of the truth, and don't even get me started about what happens when you do that to an editor (or yes, you can get me started, but not until the "Editors" section of this book).
Now I will muddy the waters by saying that the whole notion of truth can be complicated, as anyone who's ever used the passive voice can attest. (Me: What happened to the lamp? My kids: We were playing soccer and the lamp got broken. Verdict: The kids told "the truth.") And newspaper editors know as well as 10-year-olds do how tricky the idea of truth can be. They know that which stories they cover versus those they ignore, and the sources contacted versus those not called, and the quotes included versus those left out, and the story's tone, and the story's place in the paper, on what page, with what headlines, in what type, with (or without) what photos all affect how well the story reveals the "truth." We'll look at all this in the next chapter. We'll discuss the concepts of "fairness" and "balance" too. Hey, we can get altogether existential if anyone's in the mood.
You might take a moment now to consider these things in some depth, by reading the following links. The first is a September 2012 blog post by Margaret Sullivan in her role as the public editor of The New York Times, in which she considers how newspapers should cover political campaigns when the parties and candidates themselves spin the truth. The second leads to special coverage of "Truth in the Age of Social Media" by the Neiman Foundation for Journalism, in which you'll find links to half a dozen superb articles. Finally, step into the shoes of a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and read this article to find out what happens when the press is gutted and there are too few journalists covering certain stories.
But if any of this makes you worry about your ability to be a responsible journalist, then for now just remember that if you are trying earnestly to seek the truth about a story, you will have a good chance of finding it.
In January of 1971, The Washington Post received a letter to the editor from a reader who was distressed that the paper had described Helen Keller as "deaf and dumb." The editors were ashamed that the language had slipped through. I always ask my students why the editors felt this way, and my students wisely point out that Helen Keller was extremely intelligent, while the word "dumb" carries the opposite connotation. And yes, that is so. But here's the bigger problem: Helen Keller was deaf and blind.
The truth can be complicated but it's also very simple. If you get your facts right, half the battle's won.
I have a nifty story, told to me by Rabbi Neil Kominsky, that will help you remember this. It is the story of a motivational speaker at a CEO convention. The speaker took a big glass beaker and filled it with rocks and asked the audience, "Is this beaker full?"
One of the CEOs raised his hand. "Yes," he said, "the beaker is full."
The motivational speaker said, "Wait just a minute." He then poured gravel into the beaker.
"Is it full now?" he asked.
Getting the picture, the CEOs shook their heads. "No," they said.
Then he poured in some sand. "Is it full now?"
"No!" they shouted.
Finally, the motivational speaker poured water into the beaker. "Now is it full?"
And the CEOs shouted, "Yes, it is!"
And the motivational speaker said, "Okay! And what's the lesson we learn from this?"
A CEO raised her hand and said, "The lesson is that when you think you've done enough, there's always more you can do or learn."
"No," said the motivational speaker. "The lesson? Put the big rocks in first."
When you report your stories, put the big rocks in first. Get the facts. No exceptions.
We began this section of the book talking about The Washington Post and its list of principles, which have guided journalists at The Post for nearly a century. So now you should know that in the summer of 2013, the Graham family sold The Post to Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com. The sale crystallized, in one fell swoop, the revolution sweeping through the American press, as one of the country's iconic newspaper families sold their storied flagship paper—the paper from the nation's capital, the paper that broke Watergate—to a dot-com billionaire.
The sale was a shock, no doubt. But most reactions were, surprisingly, positive.
Experts in finance believe Bezos has a long-term plan for making the paper profitable.
And journalists believe that Bezos will cling tight to those principles that you so wisely memorized.
3. Dread Mistakes
Your stories will have a big impact on people's lives. This is true of even small or ordinary stories, simply because they're read by so many people. I fully understood this only after I'd turned in my first article for the Winston-Salem Journal in August of 1980. I woke at 3 a.m., panicking. The paper was already on the delivery trucks; what if the story was wrong?
I'd been sent out to cover a drug bust, and not knowing what else to do, I had rung the doorbell of the guy who'd been arrested. Evidently out of jail on bail, he answered the door and then answered my questions. What dumb luck. I came back with a scoop. It was so great.
Then the city editor grilled me on my facts, and the terrifying managing editor (whose glass office we called the Rage Cage) grilled me on my facts, and I answered all of their questions. I was dismissed and congratulated. The story would run on page one.
But now at 3 a.m. I realized: What if the guy who answered the bell wasn't the drug guy after all? What if he was pretending to be the drug guy, but really he was that guy's prankster brother? What if I'd been hoodwinked like crazy, and my editor, unable to imagine I could possibly be that stupid, hadn't caught my mistake?
In that case, I was about to WRONG some innocent man. And, I knew how it felt to be wronged, just as everyone who has a sibling knows the feeling that comes over you when your sister tells your mother that YOU hit her first, and your mother, incredibly, believes it.
And I knew that if I ever opened a newspaper and read something about myself that was unfair or untrue, I would feel that same shock and fury, that same existential horror that a lie about me was being taken for truth. I didn't want to make anyone else feel that way, ever. I especially didn't want to make someone feel that way 75,000 times, which is how many issues of the Winston-Salem Journal were just then making their way onto the city's lawns.
The next morning, the drug story turned out to be fine. I should have known it would be; I should have trusted the editors. My panic was just the smallest bit irrational. A lunatic brother, ha! Still, that long, grim sleepless night stayed with me, and I took meticulous care never to make mistakes about people in print.
And you must be careful, too. First because you never want to inflict the sort of pain that comes with an unfair characterization in the press. If you've never had it happen to you, you can't really understand how dreadful it is. But try to imagine. Of course you would never, ever deliberately mischaracterize someone in print (that would be cowardly, after all—better to have the guts to hit that person over the head with a rock), but you must take care that you don't do it accidentally, either.
Secondly, you must dread mistakes because they might make you timid. There's a saying: "A scalded cat fears even cold water." When you make mistakes, you get scalded. You feel bad, of course; plus you may get screamed at by an editor, or sued. You will wish your story could be unpublished, your words unread. But they can't be, and all the corrections in the world can't unmuddy the waters that you've muddied. So after you make a mistake in print, you will feel timid for a while, worrying that you might screw up again.
You can't be timid. You must be courageous. As a journalist, you act on behalf of the people in your community. You're not you; you're "the people"—just the one of them who happens to have the little notebook. You are a watchdog against abuses of power, and you are the chronicler of your community's truth. You cannot be afraid to dig around and bring the truth to light, even when it's unpleasant. So don't get scalded by making mistakes, because then you might lose your courage on stories you've got right.
If you take Otis Chandler's advice and become a skilled reporter with special knowledge in one focused area, and if you know The Post's principles, commit to the truth, and dread mistakes, you will have the skills and motivation to produce splendid work. Of course no one is perfect—you'll screw up. But your editors will have your back.
- Translate each of Mr. Meyer's principles into a tweet. Use your own words and remember to keep it under 140 characters!
- What is the difference between facts and truth? Remember something that happened recently among your friends. It doesn't have to be a hugely dramatic event—just something interesting that happened. Tell the story in such a way that you do not reveal the truth, even though you present the facts.
- What is your motivation in becoming—even for a semester—a journalist? Write 250 words.
- Do you have the self-awareness to recognize bias in your reporting or writing? What would you watch out for? Write 250 words.