Good Journalism Is Blocking and Tackling, Not Trick Plays

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Phil Merrill: He wanted to do journalism the way Vince Lombardi’s teams played winning football.

By Jack Limpert

Tomorrow is Phil Merrill’s birthday—he’d be 81. He bought the Washingtonian in 1979 and ran it—with breaks to be Assistant Secretary General of NATO from 1990 to 1992 and chairman of the Export-Import Bank from 2002 to 2005—until he died in 2006. When he was in government, his wife Ellie ran the magazine and its publisher now is their daughter, Cathy Merrill Williams.

Phil was the smartest journalist I ever knew. He had been managing editor of the Cornell Daily Sun while in college, and then was a researcher for broadcast journalist Mike Wallace before he joined the State Department. In 1968, he left State to buy a small newspaper, the Capital, in Annapolis, Maryland. He made it into a very successful daily paper that emphasized local news.

When he took over the Washingtonian in 1979, I got off to a good start with him. I always liked to beat the rush hour traffic and usually was in the office by 8:30. The first Monday Phil owned the magazine I got off the elevator in our DC office building and there sitting on the floor outside the magazine’s office was Phil. He said he wanted to see what time people got to work.

We actually had met two years earlier. I was in New York at a Folio conference and he stopped me in a hotel lobby, introduced himself and said he had just bought Baltimore magazine and could we talk about how to put out a magazine. We sat down in the lobby and talked for an hour and I pretty much told him everything I had learned. When we finished, I walked away thinking that this guy asked really good questions.

The most important thing I learned from him over the 27 years he ran the magazine? He liked to say that we should do journalism the way Vince Lombardi’s teams played football—great blocking and tackling. He constantly reminded us that good reporting was the foundation of good journalism, of successful journalism. The occasional trick play was okay but he worried that too many journalists tried too hard to be clever, to run trick plays. What made for good journalism was doing the hard work of great reporting.

To go with that editorial wisdom, he did one other necessary thing: He gave us the editorial money needed to do great reporting. He knew good reporting wasn’t easy, wasn’t cheap. He thought if we spent the money wisely, on good reporters and writers, it would pay off with more subscribers and a higher renewal rate. And it did.

I still think of him as the Vince Lombardi of journalism. He understood what worked. He knew how to win. He died too young.

Comments

  1. Re good journalism being mostly blocking and tackling: Back in the early ’90s I was one of the judges for the National Magazine Awards and shared a cab in New York City with Oz Elliott, the former editor of Newsweek. He then was teaching at Columbia, and he was unhappy at what he saw happening in journalism. He said he was seeing a shift from a passion for good reporting to more stories that had lots of attitude but not much reporting. He saw attitude as a cheap and easy way for a writer to get attention but not an editorial strategy that would keep readers.

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