Old Writing Advice—But Still Good

By Mike Feinsilber

Here’s a memo about writing that I wrote back in 1987—it is still plenty relevant. My wife says I edit the papers at breakfast, and I guess I do. Some of the points I made 28 years ago still need making.
What accuracy is to reporting—essential—clarity is to writing: essential. Nobody says that it’s easy to be clear. But you’re a reporter. You can call up anyone. What an awesome gift, unavailable to the multitudes. Find the expert who will make it understandable.

And the next day, read your competition. Sometimes there’s a lesson in how the other guy wrote it.

Dear Big Name: Here’s Some Money, Please Write Something

By Jack Limpert

The Washingtonian is celebrating its 50th anniversary in October and the question has been asked, “Who were some of our big name writers?”

I’d rather answer the question, “Who were the writers who wrote really good pieces?”

I learned early the perils of chasing big names. Back in the 1970s I’d call the big name writer (or more often the writer’s agent) and ask if big name might write something for us. Think of the prestige, we told ourselves, of blurbing that name on the cover.

Grammar Lesson: No, Mort Zuckerman Did Not Get a L.L.M.

By Jack Limpert

One of the joys of being a journalist is lifetime learning. Last week, after 50 years as an editor, I got a grammar lesson. I wrote this in a post about rich guys in journalism:

“What they had in common was education: Zuckerman got a B.A. and law degree from McGill, an M.B.A. from Wharton, and a L.L.M. from the Harvard Law School. Bradley graduated from Swarthmore, was a Fulbright Scholar, got an M.B.A. from Harvard and then a J.D. from Georgetown.”

Bureaucracies—Such as Time Inc.—Do the Strangest and Funniest Things

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 10.29.37 AMBack in the pre-digital age, before broadband and Google and BuzzFeed, the Time Inc. magazines were flying high: Time dominated the newsweeklies, Sports Illustrated was a big success, People was a huge success. The company had lots of money and some smart editors—Dick Stolley, Ray Cave, and Jim Seymore among them—but it also was a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies can do some really dumb things.

In 1978 Time Inc. bought the Washington Star from Joe Allbritton for $20 million plus some debt. The afternoon Star competed with the morning Washington Post, which also owned Newsweek. Maybe the Time Inc. executives thought they could show Newsweek’s owners that they also could beat them at the Washington newspaper game.

When Starting a Magazine Was Fun—and Often Profitable

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 5.27.09 PMToday’s Washington Post Style section features David Adler, a New York City event planner. The story’s hed: “The reinvented D.C. party: Speeches out, hashtags in.” The message from Adler, at a meeting of Washington event planners, was that a party needs “live Instagram feeds and anything else that will transform another boring evening into a talker.”

Why listen to David Adler? Why feature him in Style? The story says:

Journalism Welcomes Jeff Bezos and All Those Other Rich Guys

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.09.36 PM

Jeff Bezos, the Times says, has “designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Mr. Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.” Photograph courtesy of Flickr.

“At the Washington Post, reporters are encouraged to tear apart one another’s stories, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the newspaper boasts are unreasonably high.

“The internal phone directory instructs reporters on how to send secret feedback to one another’s editors. Reporters say it is frequently used to sabotage others.

When Russell Baker Made Fun of the Brahmans of Washington Journalism

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 12.06.55 PMRussell Baker, a columnist for the New York Times from 1962 to 1998, turns 90 today. Along with his newspaper work, he wrote more than a dozen books—the best known is Growing Up. That book and his New York Times columns both won Pulitzer Prizes. From 1992 to 2004, he also hosted Masterpiece Theater on PBS.

Some years back, for $2.50, I bought a first edition of his first book, An American in Washington, published in 1961 by Knopf. The opening graf: “Washington lies slightly south of Madrid and west of Maracaibo on a swamp littered with marble imitations of ancient Roman and Greek architecture.”

Rick LePere and Phil Merrill: Making Good Money By Doing Good Journalism

By Jack Limpert

Rick LePere, who would have been 70 yesterday, was one of the smartest people ever to work in publishing. He worked closely with Phil Merrill, who published the Washingtonian for almost 30 years. Rick died in February 2014, Phil in June 2006. Here’s a remembrance of the two men, first published on February 7, 2014, three days after Rick died.
Talk about two different people:

Phil Merrill grew up in New York City, edited the student paper at Cornell University, worked with TV’s Mike Wallace, was in the State Department, bought a newspaper in Maryland, then bought a magazine in Washington.

Getting the Washington Post Free Online: How Complicated Can It Be?

By Jack Limpert

I like to start the day with a cup of coffee and the print version of the Washington Post. For delivery of the paper seven days a week, I pay the Post $235.32 every 24 weeks. My wife, who lives with her Kindles, iPads, and iPhones, points out that the Post, now owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, offers free access to its website for six months. The unspoken question: Why pay for it when we can get it free?

Editors at Work: Why It’s Good to Write Those Little Notes

A weekend email:

Dear Jack,

I don’t know if you remember me, but I was one of your interns in 1998. For the past 15 years I’ve been freelancing abroad, but I was recently at my parents’ house rummaging through some boxes. Inside I found a small treasure: a typewritten note from you saying that I had done a good job on the minor league baseball story.

This was an important find because I remember that when I was starting out and editors would trash my copy, I would tell myself, “Don’t forget that Jack thinks you’re a good writer.” I even had it in writing.