The Best Journalism Assignment I Ever Had

by Steed Dropout
May, 23, 2014

Bob Harris, one of my editors, slapped a pile of clippings on my desk. “Re-write these,” he instructed me. It was 1958, my first summer on my hometown newspaper.

The clippings were fresh from our afternoon paper. We were the morning paper. We were owned by the same company. We stole from ourselves.

My first reaction was astonishment that they would repeat themselves. I worried that I was writing stories I knew nothing about. Maybe this is what my journalism professors meant when thy told me, “you’re working for one of the worst newspapers in the state of Illinois.”

I owe this worst newspaper the best training I ever got. I learned to write, unflinchingly, about that of which I knew nothing and, perhaps better, I learned newspaper form from the thousands of stories I re-wrote. I could write like a reporter but didn’t have a clue how to be one. I learned, as well, to be able to re-write anything in ten minutes or less.

This was to prove invaluable, a half-century later, when I had to re-write myself, repeatedly, on deadline. Recently, I had to write fast at Berkeley Times, where I had missed deadline for my continuing feature, South Side Tales. I got out the piece in thirty-five minutes, a personal best.

My editor wanted one more sentence, but that sentence would strengthen the story. As the copy-re-writing machine I am, I got this one out in 10 seconds. “Perfect,” wrote my editor.

Sometimes when details of a story elude me, I close my eyes and visualize that reassuring stack of clippings. Other times, I go on-scene and interview the story. I never had to do that on my hometown paper, but I had to do it forty-five years later for my new hometown paper, the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Now I do it for my own paper, Berkeley Reporter. My interviews are not much different from my buttinsky questions to anyone on the South Side during my 35-year writer’s block.

I sometimes imagine I will be telling the story at Berkeley’s historic Caffe Med to Lenny Talmy, who is blind.

Before I re-started my journalism career, five years ago, I told Lenny many stories. Talmy, a renowned linguist (known for Force Dynamics), was a hard-nosed editor. He deserves more credit than I give him.

I reported recently to Lenny about a sniper attack on Telegraph Avenue. It was a no big deal story, a cross between a terrorist attack and a college prank. The sniper had rented a hit-room, like in the movies. He had an assault rifle, rigged to spew bullets like a machine gun.

The machine-gun was only an altered BB rifle. It was designed to appeal to military wannabes. I learned that the sniper had shot a woman in the chest and hit a baby carriage. The victims were visitors to the avenue; they freaked out. Visitors weren’t up to the task of dangers that [my] 35-years on the avenue make routine.

Now I know what I missed when I re-wrote clippings. I wonder what the reporters, who wrote the stories I copied, actually knew about their stories.

Instead of discussing epistemology, which is the philosophy of how we know what we think we know, I’ve found a use for former Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld’s, Epistemology for Dummies: “…there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; …we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

“Rummy” may not have known it, but he’s become a clarion for journalists. At least for this former re-write man, who searches for the meanings behind stories he never thought he would be reporting.

These views could not possibly coincide with those of the publications in which my work appears.

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