A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author told aspiring high school reporters that vivid expression is key to their craft.
Gene Roberts, former national and managing editor of The New York Times and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which earned 17 Pulitzer Prizes during his 18 years at the helm, spoke to the students on Tuesday during a High School Media Workshop at East Carolina University. He is on campus through Thursday as part of the School of Communication’s Visiting Scholar Program.
Roberts started his career at the Goldsboro News-Argus as the agricultural reporter, working under editor Henry Belk. Belk was blind and always chastised Roberts for not being expressive enough in his stories.
“Making people see is what journalism is all about,” Roberts said. “When it’s done right it can almost seem easy and effortless but it never is. The best writing seems simple but it takes painstaking detail and writing and rewriting until it comes across as a simple but vivid story.”
To practice this craft, Roberts advised the students to read every day.
“Look for stories that you can’t put down, that grab you early on in the story and keep you all the way through,” he said. “Tear out those stories when you find them, then read them and reread them.”
As an editor, Roberts said the key to newspaper success was to let his reporters do their jobs.
“I hired the finest writers we could find and gave them the room in which to operate,” he said. “I always felt that if editors weren’t careful, they got in the way of good journalism and good reporting. Often editors sit in their offices and dream up stories that aren’t nearly as good as what the reporters could find.”
Roberts, who was a reporter for The New York Times and covered both the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, said he is worried about the state of journalism, especially the mass number of layoffs in newsrooms around the country.
“Not only are the staffs smaller, but the number of columns that are devoted to news each day have also shrunk dramatically,” he said. “It has been such a severe phenomenon that I think the First Amendment is in jeopardy.”
He also said television and the Internet are partially responsible for the lack of real news available to consumers.
“When you turn on the 24-hour news channels everyone is going ‘Yackety yack,’ and on news websites there are always plenty of words there,” he said. “But we forget that websites are mainly aggregators of news. There are very few reporters on the Internet that are doing original reporting.”
Roberts suggested news websites find better ways to make a profit so they can, in turn, fund reporters.
“It’s a critical problem for democracy and it’s one your generation is going to have to come to grips with,” he said.
In response to a student question about bias, Roberts said most reporters are too busy to worry about it.
“Most journalists, they’re driven to get the story and the bigger, more interesting the better,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to the average reporter if it falls on the political left or right, what matters is making sure you’ve exhausted as many leads and facts as you possibly can before you sit down and write the story and still make your deadline.
“Most reporters are driven by interesting fears,” he said. “Not being able to make deadline, or losing their notebook 20 minutes before the deadline, those fears override any bias.”
Kiana Jones, a senior at Perquimans High School in Hertford, came with other students in her school’s yearbook class.
“We wanted to get tips on becoming better writers,” she said. “Listening to his experience was good, especially hearing about all he’s been through (as a journalist).”
Contact Katherine Ayers at firstname.lastname@example.org and 252-329-9567. Follow her on Twitter @KatieAyersGDR.