John Simonds and John Fennell: The Books That Made Me Want to be a Journalist

By Mike Feinsilber

John Simonds went from Midwest to East to Far West in a career that ranged from writing obituaries in Indiana to serving as the ombudsman for a newspaper in Hawaii. Just as varied is the list of books that influenced him along the way.

“An early useful book for me was A Treasury of Great Reporting by Louis L. Snyder and Richard B. Morris. An anthology of distinguished pieces by journalists, it remains a work that is instructive and inspiring. People looking for impressive examples and worthy role models will find plenty to consider.

“In my mid-20s, I read Deadline Every Minute, a history of the United Press by Joe Alex Morris who had been foreign editor of the wire service. The book put a positive spin on UP’s successes and heroics. (Example: Frank Bartholomew, who became president of UP, using the power of a car battery to transmit an account of the San Francisco earthquake.)  But The Kansas City Milkman, by Reynolds Packard, another Unipresser, provided some fictitious balance with the exploits of a penny-counting news organization that overworked and underpaid its help.

“William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary was probably the first book relating to news and journalism that I read. I was in grade school when I read it just after World War II. It was a best-seller and among the first of the books by foreign correspondents that were popular then. Another was Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, a war correspondent for INS who covered that Marine invasion.

By-line Ernest Hemingway was a later influence, an anthology of his reporting from 1920-56 edited by William White (one of a number of writers/editors with that name, this one on the faculty of Detroit’s Wayne State University and a dedicated student of Hemingway’s newspaper career.)

“Other books by and about newspaper legends that I tried to learn from included Donald Elder’s biography of Ring Lardner and Irving Stone’s  Sailor on Horseback, a biography of Jack London. Another adventurous figure was Ben Hecht whose Child of The Century and Gaily, Gaily revealed much of his life in Chicago journalism and later overseas assignments.

“Nothing in my own experience remotely approached the challenges and recognition of these writers, but their stories served as motivating role models for a young person interested in the work. And in a curious Walter Mitty way, their truly dangerous conditions helped put the day-to-day tensions and frustrations of domestic journalism into a more encouraging perspective.”

Simonds’ journalism career started at the Seymour, Indiana, Daily Tribune in 1957-58; UPI in Columbus, Ohio, 1958-1960; The Providence Journal and Bulletin, 1960-1965; The Evening Star in Washington, D. C., 1965-1966; Gannett News Service in Washington, 1966-1975; the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1975-1993; Hawaii Newspaper Agency, 1993-1999; The Honolulu Advertiser, 1999-2002.

John Fennell, who teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia,  served as editor of Milwaukee magazine. Earlier, he was editor of the international design journal, Step-By-Step Graphics, where he wrote and edited features about influential designers, illustrators and typographers.

Fennell also worked as a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Among his jobs at the paper, he assisted columnist Mike Royko and wrote general assignment features. He also reported for the legendary Chicago wire service, City News Bureau. He is the author of Ready, Fire Aim, a business biography focusing on the life of Harry V. Quadracci, the late founder of Quad/Graphics, one of the largest printers in North America.

“As cliché as this choice is,” he says,  “the most influential book for me was by far All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The book had a profound effect on my interest in investigative journalism and in narrative long form journalism. I edited Milwaukee magazine for 13 years and issue stories and investigations gave this magazine its identity in the city and beyond, winning us tons of awards and respect, and in some cases changing policy and forcing several politicians from office.

“For journalists interested in long form narrative, two great primers are The Literary Journalists, edited by Norman Sims and Literary Journalism, A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction,  edited by Normal Sims and Mark Kramer. These two books include fine examples of this genre to inspire any young writer who wants to do work of substance in magazines.”

This is the fifth posting in a series about the books that journalists say lured them into reporting and writing and the books they’d recommend to aspiring journalists. If you were drawn into journalism by a book, join the conversation with a note to [email protected].

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