Writing lessons from the newsroom


My trusty and dusty 1926 Underwood typewriter.

The newspaper where I used to work recently turned 175. They asked me to share a few memories about working there for 21 years. This newspaper has the peculiar name of The Cecil Whig and covers community news in the extreme northeastern corner of Maryland. It used to be a daily newspaper, but isn’t anymore. Here are a few recollections that focus on what I learned about writing from my newspaper days.

When I look back at the newspaper business, I feel lucky to have experienced the real “paper and ink” days before the internet changed journalism so fundamentally. The Whig at 150 years old was a print product not so different from the one Palmer C. Ricketts produced in his log cabin back in 1841. By the time the Whig’s 175th anniversary arrived, something called the Internet had come along and changed the world.

 The front page news got the most attention, but in those days before Google, even a local daily like the Whig contained so much information in every issue—tide tables, horoscopes, lottery numbers, the firelog, the local weather forecast … what a tremendous effort to assemble all that information every night. It helped to be young and heavily caffeinated!

 You know, I literally still have anxiety nightmares about it being past midnight and the paper not being back to the presses yet. You could call it Post Traumatic Deadline Syndrome or something like that.

 Overall, reporting the local news seemed like such an important job, especially when there was really only one source for the news. Whenever there was a big story, such as the night a tornado hit the town of Elkton, or maybe on election night, everyone really came together as a team—reporters, editors, photographers, pressmen—to get the paper out.

 A couple of memories stand out. One night, I ran out to cover a fire in Elkton and just as I got there, the whole place went up. Whoosh! I jumped out with my camera and shot some photos. Black and white film only in those days! Well, I was so excited that I locked my keys in my car with the motor running. There was a guy in the crowd who just happened to have a wire coat hanger, and he popped that door open in seconds. You could do that with cars back then. That was awfully nice of this guy, but I had to wonder why he was so skilled in the use of a coat hanger to unlock a car. People in Elkton have skills!

 Then there was election night at the county courthouse (the old one on Main Street, not the new one on the state line in Delaware). The election board workers would tape big sheets of paper up in the hallway and write down the precinct results in Magic Marker. There would be this huge crowd gathered to see the results and it was a real party. The last time I covered an election for the Associated Press, all I did was refresh the results on my laptop. Where was the fun in that?

 In many ways the Whig was a training ground for a parade of writers, editors, and photographers over the 21 years I worked there. Editor Terry Peddicord and I used to try to remember all of them, but we would lose track after listing 50 people or so. I am sure there are many people who are successful in their fields today who have “Cecil Whig” buried somewhere in their resume.

When you write for a newspaper, there is no such thing as “writer’s block.” There is no hand wringing about “inspiration” or whatever. You get your writing done. On deadline.

 One of the great teachers there was editor Don Herring (the editor before Terry), who remains one of the smartest people and best writers I’ve ever worked with. He taught me a great deal about writing honestly and accurately. Don would actually ask you to read your bad sentences out loud in front of the newsroom, which was terribly embarrassing. Being a good teacher by nature, however, Don would offer some guidance, but he wanted you to come up with your own solution to that writing problem. Writing class was in session every night in the Whig newsroom.

 Since then, I’ve kept on writing. There are still days when my sentences don’t quite make sense, so that’s when I read them out loud, just like I used to do in the newsroom.

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