commentary (2006-02)

Work at Honest Pay

Being a journalist differs from being a writer

Work at Honest Pay

by Barry Henderson

I never wanted to be a writer. There was a time, growing up, when I wanted to be a newspaperman. I didn’t have a well-developed concept then of what a journalist was, but to a delivery boy with a bagful of headlines every afternoon, newspapermen conjured up romantic thoughts. Those thoughts kind of waned through high school. Then there was college and the Army, odd jobs and travel, and no clear career path on my map.

A call one evening from a high-school and Army buddy led me into this. He was sports editor of a county-seat daily in northeastern Indiana, and he wanted to move to general-news reporting and editing. The paper’s editor had directed him to find his own replacement covering local sports. Did I want to do that?

Maybe. Once before, on an impulse, I had gone to the office of one of my idols, Irving Liebowitz, then-editor of the Indianapolis Times, the paper I’d delivered years before, and asked about a summer job between college terms. He’d been more than pleasant and given me some advice. He said he could give me an intern’s job at something like $60 a week, but told me I’d be doing what he described as shit work, running errands for regulars and getting no real experience.

If I wanted to work in newspapers, Liebowitz said, I should go get a summer spot on a small daily with a small staff where I’d be pressed into service doing real newspapering and would, in his words, learn more in three months than I would in three years of journalism courses. I hadn’t studied any journalism, so that sounded good, but I didn’t pursue the small-daily route at the time. I did the other thing he suggested—took more history and economics and government courses, which he said would serve me better if I went into journalism seriously than would journalism courses.

So when the opportunity to get a real newspaper job presented itself, I jumped at it before I knew what I was getting into. I went to talk with my buddy’s editor, who, at length, asked me what kind of money I needed to make. I’d thought about that. I told him that the last 40-hour job I’d had was pumping gas in West L.A. before enlisting in the Army. It paid $90 a week, and I thought I ought to be worth that to the paper. I wanted one promise, that I would have to work sports only one calendar year, and that I could then move on to general assignments. My theory was that, as a sports enthusiast, I would be able to say all I wanted to say about sports in one cycle of the sports seasons. He agreed, I moved to town, was designated an instant newspaperman, and engaged what would become a lifelong pursuit—becoming a journeyman journalist.

That is not the same as becoming a writer, even though one can do both. They are different forms of the use of language, and they aren’t all that easily done together. Each is a learned skill, but neither is readily taught. Emulating a good peer group is the only real way to learn to report or to write well. I was lucky, though, on both counts. I was thrown together with a group of newspapermen and -women who were good at what they did. They were solid journalists and capable writers, and they wouldn’t settle for less from their cohorts. They’d poke fun—mercilessly—at mistakes, at mediocre reporting or at poor writing in their paper. They wouldn’t let an account that was either patently humdrum or overly melodramatic get by without a jab.

Under such circumstances, a young newspaperman learns fast or leaves. I made the cut somehow, but I knew I had a long way to go to get to the point where I was a journalist who could write passably.

That was 40 years ago, and I’m still working to gain my own satisfaction in either regard.

Looking back at the end of each year, I’ve always been happy to see one story or editorial, a single piece of writing and/or reporting, that I really liked. And there’ve been years when I didn’t find anything I’d done that met that mark.

Looking back over the whole disaster, which I wouldn’t trade for any job I know of, I’m glad of one thing in particular—that I didn’t stay in sportswriting. Too hard. Being a good sportswriter means being able to find and articulate nuances of the games in informative and entertaining ways each season, regardless of the fact that the rules, the fields and the courts stay pretty much the same and the faces change only in cycles.

The writers I’ve admired most in newspapering over those years included some sportswriters whose work absolutely dazzled me. Red Smith’s elegant style and his sports-transcending insights into the meaning of humanity define for me the best of 20th century American writing.

Who knows? If I’d stayed with sports I might have gotten better at what I try to do because of its narrow window on life and the challenges that poses. I might be finding a couple of things at the end of each year that I’m proud to say I wrote.