Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite

If news outlets want to spend their measly budgets wisely – and put out a better product – they should stop looking for gimmicks and return to the tried and true.

Imagine constructing an actual story from scratch as news happens, instead of reporters blogging or tweeting disconnected fragments for their online service.

Here’s how to start:

  1. Identify your best writers, most seasoned journalists, with sound news judgment.
  2. Park them at a desk.
  3. Pay them top dollar.
  4. Train a crew of young reporters you can trust to get the quotes right and the facts straight.
  5. Pay them rookie rates.
  6. Demand all leave their egos at the door.

How do I know this works?

I lived it.

I thought I could write a decent news story when I arrived at UPI headquarters in New York in 1970.

Then I watched Lucien Carr work.

Every day, in the slot at the main news desk, this skinny guy in his late 40s, in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, tie at half-staff, shit-eating grin under a scraggly mustache, calmly and quickly polished stories filed from bureaus around the world.

He rewrote cliché leads until they grabbed the reader by the throat – or tickled in just the right places – plugged every hole, trimmed all the fat, crafted every sentence to flow into the next.

Lucien was The Man – everyone, including the bosses, knew it – the best editor/rewriteman I’ve ever known.

(A mentor to generations of journalists, Lucien, who died in 2005, was also remembered as a muse to the Beat Generation of writers – and defamed in a recent movie called Kill Your Darlings.)

UPI, in my time, operated in the same tradition as daily newspapers where the swiftest and slickest writers banged out the best stories on deadline. Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite.

But it would be several years, after I joined United Press Canada in 1983, before my inner-Lucien emerged.

At UPC’s national newsroom in Toronto, I soon commandeered the slot as bureau chief and found my mojo as a rewriteman.

A story arriving from a bureau reporter was a starting point, far from a finished product. We routinely turned chickenshit into chicken cordon bleu.

There was some bitching from the bureaus – mainly Ottawa – but they knew they were outclassed.

There was no bitching from the kid I hired out of J-school and sent on the road with John Turner in the 1984 election campaign – just phone in your notes and quotes and we’ll take it from there.

Or from the reporter who covered the Colin Thatcher murder trial and didn’t know he had the lead when the accused dished out the Hamburger Helper alibi.

When UPC was sold to Canadian Press, I eventually took up where I left off – directing coverage and rewriting copy.

When word came that Ben Johnson failed a drug test in Seoul, my best writer in Toronto and I pounded out lead after lead into the night, combining notes from CP’s reporters at the Olympics with everything coming in from allied wire services.

During the subsequent Dubin inquiry into Johnson and the rest of the track and field dopes, I told the reporter in the hearing room to concentrate on a wrapup story – while we wrote the breaking copy at the desk from the live feed on TV.

At UPC and CP, I wrote under dozens of bylines, including a couple of guys now running major media operations and few others who went on to win national newspaper awards.

That was the way it was supposed to be. The reporter earned the byline for reporting, not necessarily for writing.

And we would have bulldozed any story straying into today’s common practice of meandering for hundreds and hundreds of words before getting to the point.

Now, too many editors are mere proofreaders. And, considering all the bonehead errors I see online, not much good at that either.

I saw the diminished role of the editor when I spent a brief time in the wasteland of the Toronto Star copy desk in the late ’90s.

Some of the kids I’d coached at CP were then reporters and editors at the Star. I was on the night shift with a lunatic copy chief.

“You can’t be substantially changing a reporter’s copy without his or her permission,” she’d scold me every time I did the kind of rewrite that was the norm at the wire services.

“Why would I phone some kid who can’t write for shit to ask permission to make his copy better,” I’d counter.

“That’s not the point, that’s not the way we do things around here.”

The Star habitually allowed stories that rated 300 words to be published as 1,000-word monstrosities that nobody could – or would – read.

I kept trimming copy and the crazy lady kept dressing me down.

“You don’t understand,” she said in conclusion to our final dust-up, “we have a big paper to fill.”

I laughed, went for a smoke, walked out on a full-time job at the Star, and accepted a part-time gig at CBC Newsworld.

UPI used to say there was always a newspaper going to bed somewhere – a deadline every minute.

On an all-news TV channel, deadlines can be measured in seconds.

It didn’t take long to feel at home – taking command of a news desk, adrenaline gushing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

Old dog. New medium. Old tricks.

***

Literary agents and publishers, please note: Much of this story can be found in a memoir of my years in journalism.

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