“Back in the day,” I thought that I was pretty hot stuff as a writer.
But the fundamental ability came from God, not from me.
I never remember a time when I could not write well. I still grin at how good I was at fooling grade school nuns with absence excuses typed on my Dad’s old Royal manual typewriter and signed with his name. And yes, I am retrospectively ashamed of the ethical lapse — sort of.
In college, I typed term papers for classmates. I had a sliding scale. It went something like this: For 50 cents a page, I would type the paper. For 75 cents a page, I would improve the writing and correct the grammar, spelling and punctuation. For the “ultimate,” which in the early 1960s might have been $1.00 per page, I would more or less guarantee a letter grade — with one big caution.
I could write an “A” term paper for basic courses. I was not fool enough to write an “A” paper for someone carrying a “D” in the course. I sometimes wrote papers that would get a “B” or a high “C,” enough to pass the course without prompting a professorial investigation.
But this was before Pell grants and student loans. Dad had died four years earlier. That writing ability helped to put food on my plate and pay for books.
Writing ability got me a job in the sports department of the Erie Daily Times and its sister paper, the Erie Morning news, nee Erie Dispatch. After college, during stints as an insurance claims adjuster and drug salesman (legally!), I earned extra money by “stringer” sports freelancing in Erie and in the Akron-Canton, Ohio, area.
I got better at writing.
Then, back in my hometown of Warren, I wasn’t just a “sports writer.” I became a sports editor. Editors and the journalists whose work they supervise need to be something altogether different than “writers.”
We need to be “reporters,” whether we type the words ourselves or help to shape the articles for publication.
What is the difference between a “writer” and a “reporter?”
One word: Accuracy.
Writers write what they want. Reporters say what the situation is, or was. These days, when I write these weekly conversation pieces, it doesn’t much matter if I tell you I got my newspaper job in 1963 instead of in 1964. Who cares? It was the era, not the date, which counts, right? Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story, right? What’s more important, the numbers or the “awesome” quality of my writing?
That love of our own prose is an occupational hazard for journalists. People praise us for that: “You did a beautiful job of telling my son’s story,” or “You made me feel like I was at that meeting, hearing the back-and-forth discussion.”
That is nice.
But the phrases are dessert. The meat and potatoes lies in getting things right.
Sometimes, that is easy enough. Look it up. Pay attention. Ask questions. Seek the information from trusted, knowledgeable people.
At other times, getting it right is impossible.
The fire is still burning down the lumber company when, faced with a deadline, a story must be written. How many employees? What caused the fire? That stuff is not knowable right then, but still, a story must be written. It is even harder for murders.
Still, getting it right is our primary responsibility.
Sometimes we write around the stuff we don’t yet know. We tell readers, e.g., “No attorney for John Jones is listed in court documents.” We give ranges, e.g., “Flames shot hundreds of feet into the night sky,” rather than “200 feet” or “300 feet.”
We can’t always get it right.
But we must not get it wrong.
Getting it wrong can misinform people. Worse, it can damage people’s lives.
A football coach verbally pounded that lesson into my head. John “Toby” Shea, a long-time coach in Warren County (142-64-4 at Youngsville and Warren) was honored at a dinner this month in Warren.
Toby was an intense coach, intense with sportswriters as well as players, officials and opposing coaches. He would readily accept fair criticism of his tactics or strategy, but he vehemently rejected things I wrote when they were not right.
He would not tolerate reporters being sloppy, any more than he would accept a sloppy block or a half-hearted effort.
He told me, often in in-your-face fashion, that there is a difference between the play being a third-and-eight or a third-and-nine. If I didn’t get that correct, could anything I wrote be trusted?
He taught me that it doesn’t matter how lovely my phrasing, how soaring my imagery, how delightful my wit, if I say the fullback ran left when he actually ran right.
Get it right.
That football coach shaped more than his players, more than his teams, more than his football program. He shaped segments of entire communities
He changed for the better one full-of-himself writer who needed to become a reporter, a journalist.
Thanks, Toby. And best wishes.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]