Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing Advice from the Indianapolis Times

From its start in 1888 until it ceased publication on October 11, 1965, the Indianapolis Times produced "lively and sometimes courageous journalism" for its readers, engaging in a variety of crusades against corruption in local and state government and campaigning for better school lunches for Indianapolis students.

The newspaper also waged an often lonely fight against the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s--a time when that racist organization held considerable political power throughout the state. The Times won a 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its work in "exposing political corruption to Indiana, prosecuting the guilty and bringing about a more wholesome state of affairs in civil government." 

In comparison to other newspapers in the city, which had stodgy reputations, the Times, noted one of its former reporters, John Bartlow Martin, was "lively, aggressive, liberal and leaning Democratic, more fun to read and work on. The Times hired you young, paid you little, and promoted you fast." The newspaper's 1954 style book, which gave tips for its reporters and editors, offers tips that are applicable to those engaged in those activities today.

For its reporters (the "Wallpaper Department"), the Times, part of the Scripps-Howard Newspaper chain, recommended them to be, most of all, accurate; dependable; to use good taste;to  read, study people, dig under the surface of things; and to be truthful. "Write your stories as you would tell them to people whose attention you want to catch," the style book said. "If you ramble, they get bored. The same is true with writing." It also reminded its writers to be fair and to keep their opinions out of news stories: "Listen to both sides. Reporting is incomplete with only accusations--hear the defense. It may spoil what you thought was a good story, but its saves you from the worst error--a biased story."

To be a complete reporter, the newspaper believed that their writers needed to remember that their jobs were not done with "just the gathering and writing of your stories. The entire paper is your responsibility. READ IT EVERY DAY--ALL OF IT. Know what it is in it." If reporters followed this dictate, and wrote as they should, the Times believed neither the writers nor subscribers would want to miss any issue. "If you're bored," the style book noted, "pity the poor character who pays the newsboy for the wallpaper you turn out."

For its editors, which the newspaper playfully called "the butchers," the Times advised them to take pride, "not glee," in their work trimming reporter's copy and to always remember that editors and reporters were on the same team, "fight together." While all copy could be cut, as there were "no sacred cows" on the newspaper, it advised the editors that stories could also be expanded. "Edit always in the interest of lucidity and good taste," the style book continued. "Whack, expand, rephrase or rewrite, but do not edit the writer's personality out of the story. The finished product must be the best efforts of many people."

A rule of thumb for the Times was that "our newspaper is always a gentleman." Still, even a good newspaperman could make a mistake. The style book advised its employees never to try to cover mistakes. "Report them to the desk for quick correction," the book noted. "That will save your and our reputation for integrity, and it may prevent a libel suit." Although a newspaper had a constitutional right to freely publish and to make comments, it also had to be "truthful and the comments fair, unbiased, uncolored and truly supported by the facts."

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