“He insisted on well-crafted leads, on clarity and vivid language, on the primacy of news”

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Darrell Christian talks about what he’s learned.

He thinks that if newspapers “get back to their guardian roots” they’ll still be around, and in print, 25 years from now. But he’s not nearly as sanguine about the people now going into journalism: he thinks too many of them are more interested in titillating than informing and are not as serious as were people new to journalism back when he was a beginner.

After most of a lifetime with the Associated Press, Darrell Christian has retired and is headed for the golf links of California.

Says AP senior managing editor Mike Oreskes in a farewell message to the staff: “Darrell, a fine wordsmith, has played an instrumental role in editing many of the greatest stories of our times. Always, he insisted on well-crafted  leads, on clarity and vivid language, on the primacy of news.”

At AP, he’s been sports editor, business editor, managing editor, and editor at large. During six years as managing editor, he directed AP’s day-to-day news report.

Before leaving, he took part in an email interview with Mike Feinsilber, whose copy Christian edited while he was a supervising editor in the Washington bureau.

Here’s the Q-and-A, with occasional interpretations of AP jargon:

Q. What was the most satisfying story you worked on? The most frustrating?

A. Most satisfying was probably the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980-81. I was the desk supervisor in Washington, and every day we kept writing about progress on getting the hostages released, even though the White House (and our dayside staff) insisted there was no movement. Walter Mears, the bureau chief and special correspondent, was asked by a puzzled member (“member” is AP’s name for newspaper/subscribers since AP is a cooperative, owned by the papers it serves) which was right because obviously both couldn’t be. Walter said nightside (the desk editors and staff who wrote stories for morning newspapers), and, of course, we were proven right.

Most frustrating? I would have said O.J. Simpson because we were so badly beaten by others who had better sources, reducing our reporting to pickup jobs (bulletin board journalism, I called it). But the missing Malaysian plane topped that. There just wasn’t any reliable information, and everything that was reported on any given day seemed to be retracted the next day. Six weeks later, we still have no hard information.

Q. How’d you get started in journalism? What drew you in? At what point did you decide you wanted to be a newsie? What or who influenced you most? If you hadn’t gone into the news business, what do you suppose you’d be retiring from now?

A. I never really knew anything else. I grew up on my local newspaper, the Henderson Gleaner-Journal—now just the Gleaner—a 10,000-circulation daily in Kentucky. I started as a high school sports stringer and was sports editor when I was 16. By the time I went to college, I was set on journalism as a career. I was lucky enough to have great mentors, notably Ron Jenkins, now retired editor of the Gleaner, who tolerated my immaturity while I grew up. A man named Al Nollman was my first managing editor, and he encouraged me greatly. I was especially drawn to the intimacy of small-town journalism, but always fancied myself as a big fish in a big pond.

I started with the AP as a summer relief staffer in  Charleston, West Virginia, in 1967, and rose through the ranks despite blunders that should have done me in—like telling AP general news editor (equivalent at the time to managing editor) Sam Blackman to run New York and let me run West Virginia (I had never heard of Sam Blackman. Lesson: Know who the bosses are!).  I also spiked a Walter Mears column once (he humbly accepted it) and once rewrote my bureau chief’s gotcha (an explanatory story) on gasoline shortages. As I said, I was lucky to be allowed to grow up. Journalism was just exciting—still is.

If I had to do something else, it probably would involve kids, either helping  adolescents or working with young adults.

Q. If you had a young offspring who said he/she wanted to go into the news business, what would you say? Would you be encouraging? Do you think studying journalism is a smart thing to do for someone who wants to write the news?

A. Studying journalism doesn’t help. Journalism is all about judgment, conscience, and powers of observation, and you don’t learn that in a classroom. You gain it through experience. I would tell an aspiring journalist today to go for it. It’s a wide-open field.  People are hungry for news, beyond the superficial stuff offered up in this Twittered world, so there’s a lot of room for bright writing and reporting with insight and eyeball observation. Don’t expect to get rich, other than in self-satisfaction.

Q. Do you think there will be printed newspapers in the U.S. in 10 years? In 25? Will they be radically different from today’s?

A. Maybe I’m just a dinosaur too stubborn to go away, but I think social media will settle in as a piece of journalism, not the main vehicle. Newspapers just need a good story to bring back the readers. Radically different? No. They just need to go back to their guardian roots and get away from being one side of today’s polarization of society.

Q. Did the newspaper industry bring on its own difficulties?

A. Sure. They forgot their roots. When your product suddenly doesn’t sell as well as it did, you make it better, but you don’t kill it. That just feeds your competition. It’s giving up. Instead of better journalism, too many newspapers responded to their social media competitors with quickie journalism.

Q. The most memorable person you worked with?

A. Would have to be Walter Mears. I always looked to him as a role model. Brilliant writer, not just fast but fast and good. I’ll never forget the 1976 Republican National Convention. It ended like 2 o’clock in the morning. Walter finished his AMer (his story for morning newspapers) and went to bed, probably around 4. At 8 he got up, picked up the phone and dictated a followup analysis off the top of his head. The lead was something like “Gerald Ford rode the power of incumbency to renomination, overcoming mistakes that would have killed any normal candidate.” Brilliant to roll out of bed and spin that off.

Walter was sure of himself —he was a Pulitzer winner, as he will tell you without being prodded—but when  he was writing he left his bossdom in his office. I remember when he won the Pulitzer he made the statement that it was a Pulitzer for the entire AP. I sent him a congratulatory note and asked if his statement meant we all shared in the  money. “No,” he wrote back. “You couldn’t have done it without me.”

Walter was a mentor, counseling me to be less cocky, less abrasive in my dealings with writers. “Don’t tell a writer his story sucks,” Walter once said. “Just say it was awful.” That was after I spiked his column, telling him it “sucked” because it lacked any new material or insight. “Damn,” he said. “I was hoping to get that past you.” In hindsight, it may have been a little weaker than Walter’s usual, but it wasn’t so awful.

Q. How do you compare young people getting into journalism today with those who started when you did?

A. Not as serious, not as facile, less socially conscious. Too interested in titillating and not interested enough in informing.

—Mike Feinsilber

Comments

  1. Questions: 1. Does AP have fewer members than it did ten years ago? 2. Has AP increased its business during the last ten years as fewer members do their own reporting outside their ‘hometowns’?

    I have long been curious how the decline in newspapering by individual newspapers — e.g., bureau closures — affects the fortunes of wire services.

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