Daily Newspapers Still Offer Superb Training for Young Writers
July 8, 2019 § 10 Comments
By Samuel Autman
I wish I could say reading novels by James Baldwin or Toni Morrison spurred me on to becoming a writer, but my career choice is more likely tied to my Southern family’s penchant for spinning tales, my comic strip heroes Clark Kent and Peter Parker, and the fact that I was seven-years-old when Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reportage forced Richard Nixon out of the presidency and made newspaper work seem noble.
By the time I showed up at the Tulsa World as a general assignment reporter in 1989, people who wrote for newspapers were still revered as skillful, savvy souls contributing to the social good. Thirty years later, journalists are too often vilified as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” but newsrooms are still invaluable boot camps for aspiring writers.
The structure is natural. Editors sign off on the stories. The writers are provided with characters acting out on a public stage. Sometimes reporters make dozens of calls, knock on doors, or talk to people on the street in search of that sparkling quote. Deadlines force the journalists to quickly organize their thoughts and write for editors who are waiting for the piece, which will be edited and placed online almost immediately. The stakes are high but the system creates a safety net and structure for all involved. Nobody wants to be sued.
During my first week in the Tulsa World newsroom, editors tossed me a juicy front-page story. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation requested that FBI Director William Sessions authorize a new DNA test to re-examine the unsolved Girl Scout murders. On the morning of June 13, 1977, the bodies of Lori Lee Farmer, 8, Doris Denise Milner, 10, and Michelle Heather Guse, 9, had been discovered at a Tulsa campsite. They had been molested, bludgeoned and strangled on their first night out. Gene Leroy Hart, who had been convicted of kidnapping and raping two pregnant women, was on the run at the time of the Girl Scout murders. His arrest and trial drew a lot of media coverage. In March of 1979 a jury acquitted him. Three months later Hart, in prison for other charges, collapsed and died after exercising.
Over the next thirteen years in Tulsa, and later at newspapers in Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and San Diego, I was paid to chase hundreds of assignments and write about a series of characters I would not have met otherwise.
Once I accompanied a team of journalists who followed San Diego Padres right-fielder Tony Gwynn from San Diego to St. Louis to Montreal until he made his 3,000th hit, a real stretch for me, a non-sports guy.
Another time I covered the story of the Salt Lake Board of Education tossing out every single noncurricular student organization – from the Bible club to the UFO club – just to prevent three lesbians from forming a Gay Straight Alliance at East High School. The action launched a series of 1960s style protests, landing me on the front page for ten consecutive days and making national headlines.
Not everything was a splashy A1 story but they all taught me something. I remember covering a speech in the early 1990s by Pulitzer Prize winning author Norman Mailer, who went on a rant at the Tulsa Public Library. “Most newspapers writers are hacks,” he asserted. “They’re just terrible writers.” I felt so located and enraged because he was right. Much of my prose was truly dreadful, but each day, sentence by sentence, editor by editor, year by year, newspapers allowed me to shed those terrible sentences, hone my craft.
Later I was invited to write about a reunion with my father from whom I had been alienated since childhood, and his subsequent death. This was the story that hooked me on narrative technique. The way readers responded to those columns, which I now know were personal essays, led to my eventual resignation from working in the newsroom. I craved the freedom to write what I wanted.
When I quit, a former colleague from The Salt Lake Tribune invited me for two weeks to visit a small college in rural Indiana to consult with the student newspaper. All these years later, I have tenure, and numerous personal essays in literary magazines and print collections.
Yet I owe my literary DNA to writing for dailies. I would do it all again.
Samuel Autman is a member of DePauw University’s creative writing faculty. His essays have appeared in The Chalk Circle, Black Gay Genius, The Kept Secret, The St. Louis Anthology, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine and Brevity.