By Jack Limpert
One of the great storytellers in American journalism was Don Hewitt, who created 60 Minutes for CBS television. He approached the weekly television show like a magazine or newspaper editor. In his 2001 book, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, he described how he operated:
If 60 Minutes is anything, it’s a loose shop….We make it work not with meetings and memos, but with ideas and an open-door policy. Any member of our extended family—our on-air reporters, our executive editor Phil Scheffler, our off-air reporters-producers, the assistants and secretaries—can weigh in. When Mike [Wallace] gets an idea, he storms into my office with a “Hey, kid, why don’t we…”
It dawned on me when I first thought about doing a television newsmagazine that the best way to do it would be to do what print magazines generally do: They rely on a stable of writers to pitch them ideas and once one of those ideas is approved, they give the writer his head to more or less act on his own and bring them a finished story.
There are no hard and fast rules in writing for the ear, but after more than fifty years of working at it, I believe in some rough guidelines. Short is better than long and don’t waste words….No unnecessary adverbs or adjectives….Don’t be afraid to write the way people talk.
You don’t talk down to people but you also don’t assume they know as much as you do about your subject. A rough rule of thumb is from the great publisher Roy Howard: “Never underestimate the public’s intelligence and never overestimate its knowledge.”
In the Washingtonian’s Writer’s Guidelines, I said it this way: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”
As an editor, I always believed in what Hewitt called a loose shop. My office door always was open in hopes that when a writer had an idea he or she would walk in and talk about it while the fire was still burning. Good stories most often came when the editor and writer shared an enthusiasm: “This could be a terrific story.”
What I learned about meetings: Five is the magic number. We did a lot of brainstorming and it worked best with three to five people. We’d decide in advance on a subject—let’s talk about dining coverage tomorrow at 10—and then keep the meeting to under 20 minutes. Once you get more than five people around a table, the chemistry seems to change. When you get 10 or more people around a table, it becomes bureaucracy in action and the smartest people just listen.
Hewitt once talked about the difference between a subject and an idea. I always found that useful when deciding on a story: Is this a subject or an idea? If there’s not an interesting idea behind the story, if it’s just a subject that’s out there, it’s probably not going to work. What kind of head would we put on this story? We don’t have to write the head now but there better be an interesting idea behind the story that could make a good head.