I recently asked Sandy Rowe, Oregonian editor and former Ruhl lecturer, for advice on my visit today and she said, “Whatever you do, be passionate. It’s Oregon!” We Midwesterners are more of a slow burn type, but I’ll see what I can do.
It is a tremendous privilege to be with you to honor the memory of Robert W. Ruhl, the late editor and publisher of the Medford Mail Tribune. There can be no greater memorial to a journalist than to have his name connected with ethical debate and reflection. In keeping Mr. Ruhl’s legacy alive through this annual lecture you have honored what should be uppermost in the minds of all journalists – though, if that were so, I don’t suppose the need for this yearly gathering would be quite so acute.
I do not know where Mr. Ruhl found his ethical moorings, though I suspect it was far from a hall such as this. While I am grateful to be here, I am also apologetic to the students among you. You have endured many lectures this year and have one more standing between you and Memorial Day weekend. But I would like to address my remarks to you and ask you to reflect on the ethical code that is likely already hard wired in you, like DNA. While ethics, quite properly, has founds its way into most journalism school curricula, an ethical education is unlikely to be merely a classroom experience. Whether you know it or not, I suspect each of you already has formed the backbone that will fortify you in your first ethical crisis. More likely, it won’t be a crisis at all, but one in a series of decisions that will come to define the sort of journalist you will become on your way to running our nation’s newsrooms.
“Moorings,” the dictionary will tell you, are the lines and cables by which a ship is steadied, but they are also the beliefs, habits and ties that make one feel secure. Now and then it is useful to inventory those. You have chosen journalism in an uncertain time, but you and your profession will be well served if you leave this institution affirmed in those beliefs. Like Ruhl, you are the sum of your personal experience, some of it accumulated long before you found journalism.
So may I begin with a personal question: What was in your email last week? I’ll tell you mine.
Among the notices of strategic plan meetings, entreaties from the readers about the war in Iraq and invitations to enhance body parts I do not possess, there was one missive that fairly caused my heart to leap.
It was headed “May 22 Deadline for Student Publication Bldg Components,” a deceptively narcotizing subject line for an email that carried tantalizing news from the University of Michigan’s Board for Student Publications.
“Preservation and reuse of historic features—wood paneling, windows, leaded glass, stile and rail wood doors, oak trim, limestone, travertine, marble and brick—guide the renovation of the Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building. Other items will not be reused because of poor condition or less historical significance. These items are generally large and heavy but could be yours if you act by Monday.”
I did not need to look further than the first item on the list: massive counters and cabinetry in the newsroom of the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, that are 40 inches high and run as long as 25 feet. They were pretty beaten up when I left my editorship of the Daily in 1978, and I couldn’t imagine that the ensuing 3 decades had restored their luster. No wonder they were being given away.
I wanted them desperately. I emailed my husband and asked if he thought I was crazy. My note drew a quick response. “I don’t ‘think’ you’re crazy,” he wrote, quickly adding, “These could fit in a rental truck.”
Why did these matter to me? Beyond their worth as kindling, not an insignificant asset during Chicago winters, there was certainly no monetary value to the counters. I could not even picture where in my home I could store such behemoths. But unspoken in the email exchange between me and my husband, also a graduate of Michigan and its student newspaper, was the knowledge that behind those counters my journalistic spine had been formed and, for better or worse, much of what I valued or reviled about our profession.
The first time I walked into the Daily, the student editor of the paper was standing on one of those counters, exhorting freshman recruits. He wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt and was drinking a Coke that cost a nickel from the subsidized machine in the business office. Thirteen years later, he would stand on a stage at Columbia University, wearing a suit and accepting the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and the line between those two moments always seemed straight and true.
Like him, I had my first real newspaper stories edited at those counters. I drew my first unsupervised layouts there, wrote my first headlines, learned the secret and intoxicating language of newsrooms and cropped the photographs of the shooter who would later become my spouse. Seymour Hersh stopped by one day while visiting Ann Arbor and held court across those counters. Another night, California legislator Tom Hayden, a former editor of the Daily in the 60s, came back to visit, prompting a debate that raged for days about whether the paper had been hijacked or elevated—choose your corner—by the journalist-turned-war-activist who would go on to found the SDS.
Soon it would be my turn to stand upon those counters and welcome a new class of freshmen.
In truth, we also played hockey on those counters, crashed on them after the 2 a.m. edition and sat crossed legged upon them planning dance parties and telling stories of our love lives. Just beyond the counters, pasted on the sports department walls, were collections of favorite headlines; many of them were written at the expense of the Navy football team, who sometimes suffered first in losing to the Wolverines and again at the hands of Daily sports editors who had never met a pun on “Seaman” they didn’t fancy.
When someone observed that our behavior in those years often bordered on the sophomoric, a former Daily colleague quipped, “Of course it did. We were sophomores!”
But nothing about those years seemed like playing at journalism.
In my first weeks as editor, I spent a Saturday locked in a room with other senior editors debating less whether we were for or against the execution of Gary Gilmore, son of Oregon, but whether our opposition to his death should run on the editorial page of the Daily or boldly plastered across page one, as if the governor of Utah or a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would be any more likely to read it there.
But fueling that debate was less ego than some primal notion that journalism mattered, and that when done right it could change the course of a man’s life, maybe even save it.
That turned out to be true, though it would take me some time to prove it. Two decades later, the Chicago Tribune would begin a massive examination of criminal justice issues, including an investigation of every Illinois death row case, a review that uncovered so many flaws and irregularities that the governor of Illinois, who did read the Tribune, declared a moratorium on executions, followed by a dramatic decision to shut down death row.
In my office I keep a photo of a former prisoner standing in the Tribune newsroom on the day of his release, thanking the reporter who wrote the stories that argued for his innocence. In it I see the shadow of 19- and 20-year-old newspaper editors who lacked the tools and influence to dismantle the nation’s capital punishment apparatus, but had somehow learned the power and promise of journalism to do the nation’s moral bidding, even if only in a dress rehearsal.
It also was at the Daily where I first saw a promising career cratered by charges of plagiarism. The most beautiful writer any of us knew had, inexplicably, borrowed passages from a book for a profile. Her excuse was one I would hear many times over the course of my professional life: somehow her notes for the story became entangled with notes she had taken on the book and the two had merged. Perhaps you will hear echoes of this in the recent story of the 19-year-old Harvard sophomore whose successful first novel was withdrawn by her publisher after allegations she borrowed passages from others’ work.
The lengthy and serious deliberations that led to my classmate’s verdict were in the hands of her student peers, no older than many of you. Years later, when I was put in a similar judgment of a colleague who had breached the ethical bounds of our profession, I leaned into that experience like a child into a parent. I remembered three things: the sobriety of the editors who examined the claims and made the decision to let go their fellow student; the sadness that enveloped our small newsroom for the deception that had been visited upon us and our readers; and, finally, the heartache we all felt for our fallen colleague, who surely was wrong but was still a human being.
It turned out that journalism wasn’t just about standing on counter tops and writing clever sports puns—or even just about reforming capital punishment. There was an ethical stewardship required that wasn’t rightly fun, even if it was right. Years later, I was in the office of a seemingly beloved newspaper editor and made a passing reference to a friend of his in the newsroom. He cut me off. “I don’t have any friends here,” he said. I thought back to that horrible week at the Daily and the editors who had been compelled to sanction their “friend” and knew precisely what he meant. Here was one more way in which journalism was supposed to distinguish itself from some other professions, notably politics, where relationships could be counted on to soften the sting of rebuke, maybe even dull it altogether, no harm done.
I work now for a newspaper with a thick written code of conduct, much of which boils down to a single sentiment that we had somehow begun to intuit all those years ago: Avoid anything you would not like to read about on page one of a newspaper, your own or someone else’s. But clearly, if the most talented among us were susceptible, the profession could not be inoculated against the occasional trespass, even in Ann Arbor where Jonas Salk had announced his vaccine against polio, presumably a more formidable force. More importantly, journalism’s stewards could not always be counted on to promptly investigate suspicion, as my student editors had done. If it could, the names Jayson Blair and Jack Kelly would not be warning posts along journalism’s proud if occasionally pocked landscape.
How do journalists become fabulists? Why isn’t the truth good enough when it is so gloriously and tragically abundant? How do people lose their moorings or, more relevant, where do they first find them?
Let me tell you something you have never heard a woman say in public: I love to iron. The reason is that it recalls for me some of the richest hours of my childhood, watching my grandmother’s arm glide back and forth across my father’s white shirts, the steam rising up from the damp cotton. That ironing board was her lectern, a place where she stood for hours at a stretch, filling my head with wisdom and stories and my first lessons in verisimilitude.
Her name was Anna Klapec, though my siblings and I knew her as Grannie Annie until the day she died. She would time her ironing for the start of General Hospital, her favorite soap opera. Yet none of the fantastic plot twists that droned in the background were a match in my young eyes for the incredible drama of my grandmother’s life. Witnessing the death of her relatives to the epidemic that swept her Polish village. Making passage to Ellis Island as a child and tasting her first orange in the steerage class of a ship crowded with immigrants. Helping her parents tend the still that for a time afforded them a living in their new country. And, most astounding to me, tales of her three marriages, each its own bittersweet drama.
I didn’t know I was learning to interview during those afternoon sessions with my grandmother, but I was. And what I was too young and she too modest to know was that she was training me for the truth, to find in a life the real stories that no soap opera script writer could hope to replicate. She did not embellish. She told things in the precise order they happened. And, like the juxtaposition of the soap operas and the ironing, she had a knack for holding the extraordinary in equal measure to the everyday because she knew intuitively that both made up a person’s life.
Here is an example from the diaries she wrote in nightly, volumes she freely shared with her family.
“March 31, 1988: 88 (degrees). Had a tint and hairdo, also had eyebrows plucked. Great news from Helen! Ann Marie called – she won a pulitzer prize. We’re very happy for her.”
No long ago my mom and I shared Grannie Annie stories and paged through some of the diary passages, the news of my younger brother’s birth mixing comfortably with grocery trips to the A&P. We also went through the small box of papers containing her passport, a statement from the shipping lines that brought her second husband to America, and a typed letter from a priest in Michigan documenting her first husband’s burial. I jotted down some dates and the address of the church and told my mother I’d one day look for back issues of the local newspaper to see if they had covered his death. All these years later and there I was, still hungrily reporting my grandmother’s story.
I once shared these sentiments with my young daughter and asked her what she thought the lesson was. “I bet Jack Kelly didn’t iron,” she said. “More men should iron.” I love that and maybe should leave it there. But there is something else to note: There is, I think, in every successful career, a time when a true love for what we do was first nurtured. I know when that was for me, and wonder if those few who would do so much harm to our profession ever really had it. As in any relationship, wanderlust can threaten, which is probably a good time to remind yourself of where the romance began, be it behind a computer, atop an oak countertop or aside an ironing board. If you can’t get back that feeling, move on. There is no shame in a second act, though plenty in making a hash of your first.
Regrettably, leave taking has too often been marked by the harsh refrain of former editors who have never met a working hack they admire. This too is familiar from my college newspaper days, when each class of outgoing Daily editors dismissed their successors as benighted, a phenomenon that once prompted my co-editor to joke, “How many Daily editors does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the bulb and two to talk about how great the old bulb was.”
Last month, just up the road in Seattle, the American Society of Newspaper Editors held its annual convention. Midweek, a recently retired newspaper editor looked upon our nation’s editors and remarked, “A generation ago, we at the ASNE convention might have encountered such formidable editors as Gene Roberts, Ben Bradlee, Abe Rosenthal and Gene Patterson. With all due respect, there is no such pride of lions roaming among us today."
The claim was unfortunate on several levels, not least of all for the omission of that generation’s great women editors. Where was Kay Fanning, the first woman president of ASNE and crusading editor of the Christian Science Monitor and Alaska Daily News, where she fought against economic retribution and special interest pressure to challenge the state’s most sacred cows and earn Alaska its first Pulitzer Prize? Or Geneva Overholser, the former Des Moines Register editor who changed the way we report on rape in this country through her paper’s courageous coverage?
As for the four he did mention, here’s some of what’s been going on in their newsrooms lately:
Ben Bradlee’s successors at the Washington Post just won four Pulitzer Prizes, in part by revealing secret “black site” prisons, challenging the same corridors of power in Washington that Bradlee famously exposed.
At the New York Times, Abe Rosenthal’s successors won three, one for opening the debate on secret domestic eavesdropping in this country and another for crusading commentary on genocide in Darfur.
Gene Patterson’s St. Petersburg Times, thanks to the resourceful planning of his successors, stands today as one of the healthiest independent newspapers in the nation.
And at Gene Roberts’ Philadelphia Inquirer, the editor recently stood in a public square to answer a group of outraged Muslim readers demanding to know why her paper was the only major American daily to run the controversial Danish cartoons of Mohammed – an explanation that other editors assigned to ombudsmen and editorial writers.
There are others, starting with the editors of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Sun Herald in Biloxi who risked much, working in unfathomable conditions, to tell their readers the story of Hurricane Katrina. Or the editors of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, who last year backed an unpopular investigation of the man accused of orchestrating the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, stories that led to a successful prosecution. Or editors at the Los Angeles Times who led a page-one campaign to confront homelessness on their city’s streets. Or my own colleagues at the Chicago Tribune who pursued a dangerous story of how unsuspecting Nepalese men had been lured to their slaughter in Iraq, forgotten casualties in a previously undocumented human pipeline fueling the war. Or your editors in Portland who published a series of persuasive editorials about the abuse inside a forgotten Oregon mental hospital.
I see no shortage of courage in our nation’s newsrooms. I see no vacuum of leadership. What I do see, as the ASNE speaker allowed, is a generation of journalists whose work is much harder and more uncertain than anything that has come before. It’s the journalists’ version of the Ginger Rogers Syndrome, says an editor friend of mine – dancing backwards in high heels while Fred Astaire and the pride of lions get all the credit.
When I arrived at the Tribune, the paper produced two editions and competition was defined primarily by what appeared in Chicago’s other daily newspaper. Newspaper editors were aptly named. They edited newspapers.
Reporters arriving to the Tribune today compete against a vastly expanded portfolio of alternatives, from thriving suburban dailies to local blogs to emailed sports and business digests. Their editors oversee a newsroom with obligations far beyond the newsprint edition of the Chicago Tribune, to include an Internet edition, a commuter tabloid, a cable station, radio and television partnerships, books and a Spanish-language daily.
Meanwhile, the familiar gale winds buffeting the economy are at our door, and knocking. Many of the advertisers that historically fueled the cost of newspapering are slumping. Lots of classified advertising is widely available for free. The price of newsprint is up. Circulation, and the revenue that came with it, is down at many papers. Investors are disenchanted, as Knight Ridder found out the hard way. And a generation of Americans has found a way to take Guttenberg out of the equation, not all of them convinced that paperless information is information worth paying for.
“Information wants to be free,” a futurist famously said, but that is a concept that troubles the journalists who know how expensive it is to gather, whether printed on dead trees or posted online. This is all particularly distressing to editors struggling to maintain standards and credibility in the face of mounting business pressures, all the while scolded by former editors because life isn’t what it used to be.
“They (earlier generations of editors) never had to think twice about money,” says an editor of a major metro. “It wasn’t that people didn’t care about money back then, it was that there was plenty of it.”
The seismic shifts are not just economic ones, but related to the very way that consumers define and value journalism.
In a recent story in the business section of my newspaper, a Chicago Tribune vice president was quoted describing Google News as posing a threat to newspapers since newspapers were effectively supplying so much of the content. “Our brands are taking a back seat to the aggregators,” my colleague said. “Those of us who edit and write need to maintain the value of what we produce.”
A blogger responded by posting a drawing of John Wilkes Booth assassinating Abraham Lincoln in the box at Ford’s Theater, using Photoshop to replace Lincoln with a dinosaur. In large type Booth is shouting, “Sic semper tyrannosaurus!”
This gloating over the prospect of Main Stream Media’s extinction is intriguing. Which of the MSM stories I mentioned earlier should our nation do without? Coverage of Katrina? Revelations of domestic eavesdropping? The genocide in Darfur? How about those stories telling you what your mayor discussed behind closed doors today, how your college board voted on tuition increases, whether the police patrols in your neighborhood have solved the rash of home burglaries?
There is another photograph I keep in my office. It shows a Tribune reporter huddled in an abandoned sheep barn in Afghanistan, part way through a journey by jeep and horseback over the Hindu Kush. It is dark and cold. He is writing by kerosene lamp, his laptop running off of a gas-powered generator. These were the early days of the war, and he and a Tribune photographer were headed where most of the correspondents were not, piecing together the difficult and important story of the Northern Alliance.
Information may want to be free, and bloggers may cheer for Booth to slay the dinosaur, but this is still what reporting looks like, and will for as far out as we can see. You can’t Photoshop that.
In my last year at the Daily, I attended a couple of board meetings with the adult overseers of our finances – some of them university professors, others news executives from the Detroit papers – where belt tightening was called for. We stopped subsidizing the nickel Coke machine. We also suspended our subscription to a supplemental wire service, a subscription started by previous editors who had found the coverage of the Vietnam War especially reliable. It was dubious to argue that the paper should fund the caffeine habits of its staff. But importantly, the board and the editors agreed that should unforeseen news events occur, the wire service would be restored if it was needed to serve the readers.
Last week at Stanford University, Clark Hoyt, the outgoing Washington bureau chief for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, gave a speech about the importance and perils of public interest journalism in the nation’s capital. It was a strong articulation of the power of the fourth estate, particularly in time of war, made somewhat melancholy by the fact that Hoyt was in his last days as bureau chief, since his company had just been sold. When his speech ended, a remarkable thing occurred. The first audience member to the microphone stood not to ask him about his thesis, but about the health of her local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News—one of the papers put into play by McClatchy’s decision to buy Knight Ridder then divest several of the properties, including the Mercury News.
“We in the area are deeply concerned,” she began. “We’re deeply concerned about the business changes at Knight Ridder. I would ask you two questions—your hopes for the future for the San Jose Mercury News as well as our local Palo Alto Daily. But also….” She stumbled for a moment here, trying to recall the name of Bruce Sherman, the investor who pressed the sale of Knight Ridder. She then asked: “I wondered if the readers should have a voice, and if we could have changed something about that?”
On my right was a McClatchy executive, behind me was the editor of the Mercury News, and with her a group of Knight Ridder executives, including Tony Ridder. The question hung in the air a moment. I glanced back at Tony Ridder, who was looking upon the woman with what seemed a wan, grateful smile. He was losing his company, and she feared for her newspaper. On this night, at least, they had much in common.
I don’t know what Knight Ridder executives or editors plan in the way of writing about these recent months, but a lot has happened and it would be useful to record. For many years it was customary at The Michigan Daily for the outgoing editors to write letters to their successors, typically lengthy documents that ranged from pointers on personnel to detailed documentation of the graduating editors’ journalistic contributions. And advice, lots of advice. Some of this was practical, such as maintenance of the wire machine. Other advice was more delicate regarding counsel on negotiating with certain board members or guidance on which of the men in the linotype shop would be inclined to let the occasional crudity slip into print—perhaps something about the Navy game.
One day while poking around the Daily newsroom I found a forgotten stash of these letters and sat down to read them. All these years later I remember much about them, although there is only one sentence I can quote verbatim.
It said: “Take care of our Daily.”