Gene Roberts’ first editor was blind but it didn’t deter him from teaching the young reporter out of the University of North Carolina one of the most valuable lessons of his long, storied career.
“Make me see,” the editor of the Goldsboro (N.C.) News-Argus would demand after he’d heard Roberts’ daily farm column read to him. It’s a lesson Roberts never forgot as he went on to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War for the New York Times and, as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, lead his newspaper to 17 Pulitzer Prizes in his 18 years there.
The journalism icon, now 76, who teaches writing and the history of the press in the civil rights movement at the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, spoke at CUNY last Thursday to students in Prof. Michael Arena’s investigative journalism class and, yes, a few awestruck professors.
Here are Roberts’ Rules of reporting and writing, some suggested reading and one plan for how to get a job:
• Make Me See. Whether it’s a sweet potato that looks like Gen. Charles DeGaulle or the scene of a brutal civil rights confrontation, write visually so your readers feel like they’re there..
• Make your writing conversational. His News-Argus managing editor had Roberts read both the print and radio versions of the AP Wire. The radio wire was far easier to read, which taught Roberts another valuable lesson.
• Make sure you understand what your story is about. Write a simple description of why your story matters. We call it the nut graf.
• Get the height of the smokestack. Roberts told a story about legendary editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who sent a reporter back to the streets when he couldn’t tell him the height of a factory smokestack. The moral of the story: Details matter. Specific details matter even more.
• Read good writing and ask why it works, and apply those lessons. Roberts recommends the annual “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” an annual compilation by Poynter of the reporting and writing winners of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) awards; he also suggested “Writing for Story,” by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin, who annotates his book with his writing strategies.
• Learn your craft. Learn how to report and write. Don’t get hung up on whether you’ve mastered the latest technology of delivering news; it’ll probably change by the time you graduate.
• Do it all. Luckily, that’s part of the curriculum here. In his early years, Roberts covered everything at small dailies — cops, courts, government, politics, breaking news. He also bounced from being a reporter to an editor and back, which made him even better. Here at CUNY, you work online, broadcast and print.
• Work for a small daily or broadcast outlet where you have to learn to do it all (See above).
• How to get a job, according to Roberts. Go to a small newspaper, show up at 8 a.m. and stick around all day to talk to the editors who can hire you. That’ll show the initiative and aggressiveness editors want to see (and it’ll save time-starved editors from having to respond to a letter or email).