Monday, May 30, 2005

Never write a headline longer than...

In 16 pages of self-evident mumbo-jumbo, a new study says future journalists should be taught to be ethical, objective, analytical, thorough, knowledgeable, and, perhaps, to speak a foreign language or two.

There's s still no math requirement, which, candidly, was a big selling point when I decided to major in journalism.

Like any consulting report worth its salt, the analysis by McKinsey & Co. for the Carnegie Foundation recommends further study. Accordingly, the pro-bono report climaxes by encouraging “journalism deans to undertake a bold effort to reshape and reinvigorate the quality of education that journalism schools offer."

Busy educators don't have to spend a lot of time boldly reshaping and reinvigorating themselves. All they have to do is spend an hour teaching their students the following seven highly perceptive quotations.

They worked just fine for me, and I'm boldly shaped, if not altogether invigorated.

:: “A newspaper’s job is to set the agenda,” said Howard M. Ziff, who taught me at the University of Illinois after a solid career as a reporter and editor in Chicago. By that, Howie meant a news organization’s job was to figure out the important stuff, ask the tough questions, dig up the answers and publish them.

:: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” advised Arnold A. Dornfeld, the legendary night city editor of the City News Bureau of Chicago. In requiring every rookie reporter to call his or her mother to confirm whether she indeed loved the aspiring journalist, Dornie emphasized the importance of getting the facts and getting them right.

:: “If you don’t know the lead, ask yourself, ‘What will happen next?’” This is another one from Howie Ziff, whose advice is more meaningful than ever for newspapers, which look like klutzes when they repackage day-old news broken originally by CNN, radio and the Internet. Howie’s quote emphasizes the obligation of a news organization, especially a newspaper, to penetrate a development by examining its causes, significance and consequences.

:: “Never let the facts get in the way of a story.” This quote has been around so long that no one can say who authored it, but I heard it first from Harlan Draeger, a now-retired Chicago newspaperman. “Every good story has to be told like a story,” said Harlan. “There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. There have to be good guys and bad guys.” A superb reporter and elegant writer, Harlan always got the facts into his stories. They just didn’t get in the way.

:: “Kill your darlings,” advised the late Gene Graham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who later became a professor at the University of Illinois. In so saying, Gene was arguing for clear reporting and concise writing that puts the priority on informing readers, not flaunting the rhetorical aerobatics of a self-indulgent writer.

:: “Never write a headline longer than a newsboy can shout,” growled the late Bill Rising on my very first night at the copydesk of the Chicago Daily News. That was one of two pieces of unsolicited advice from Bill. The other, offered in more colorful colloquial language than will be employed here, was not to engage in intimate romantic relationships with female co-workers. Bill’s point on headlines, which works equally well for websites, graphics, video and other media, is that well-conceived, uncluttered communication works best. His second admonition, which I followed far more consistently than the first, is well taken, too.

:: “Always put the tits above the fold,” thundered Al Neuharth to the editors assembling one of the earliest editions of USA Today. Al, who back then was CEO of Gannett, showed up in the newsroom every night to kibitz when the first edition came off the press. When the page-one picture of a female cheerleading team was positioned too low for Al's taste, he ordered the paper to be remade in conformance with the above-stated principle. His point, of course, was that good marketing never hurt the financial health of a news organization.

Al also is the guy who observed that “only cream and SOBs rise to the top.” We'll save that tip for a future discussion of media-management skills.


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