Ward Just on Newsroom Cynicism and Newspapers as a Version of a Song, That Day’s Melody

The Eastern Shore, by Ward Just, is a novel about Ned Ayres, a newspaperman. It starts out in a small town in Indiana, then moves on to Indianapolis, Chicago, and Washington, where Ned edits of one of the nation’s biggest papers. It’s Just’s 19th book and at age 81 he seems to be looking back some at his own life. He grew up in the Midwest and came east to write for the Washington Post before becoming a novelist.

Like all his novels, it’s a good read and this one is quick at 200 pages. For journalists, there are interesting insights into the way we think. Some excerpts:

Ned Ayres as a young man in Herman, the small Indiana town where he grew up.

God, he wanted something else, but he did not know what that something else was. He refused to live and die in Herman. He believed he was looking at a stone wall. An article in the paper that afternoon disclosed that Herman’s population was in the upper five percent of longevity in the state of Indiana. He tried to imagine himself at sixty-five in Herman. He would be editor of the newspaper. He would have 2.5 children. He would not own a Volkswagen. He would marry a beautiful young girl who would in a few years be no longer beautiful or young. He himself would run to fat and failing eyesight. He put the binoculars to his eyes once again and was surprised to see a winking red light, an aircraft from somewhere. He had never seen an aircraft in the Herman sky except for the occasional crop-duster. The aircraft was flying west to east. He knew what he wanted. He didn’t know how to get there. He wanted out.

Ned Ayres as an editor in Chicago.

It was often remarked that men and women in the newspaper trade became cynical early….Their cynicism was honestly acquired but had little to do with the hurly-burly. It had to do with the milieu of continual surprise. Just when you thought you had a handle on the story something utterly strange presented itself. Something off-key. Out of sync, a person, place or thing that did not belong. The reporter sought coherence, but there was no coherence. Instead there was a whirl. Whirl ruled. And the facts fell willy-nilly from an overburdened tree, yet habitually a few facts short. As for the newsroom cynicism, it was also true that the worst thing a reporter could be called was naive. A parasol in the pigsty.

Ned Ayres as an editor in Washington, D.C.

God that was an awful piece about Jacqueline Kennedy. He wondered how much of it was factual. Probably not much. The younger reporters took liberties that the older ones did not, as if the typewriter keys were little magic wands that conferred reliability, the machine a kind of god. Maybe there should be an age requirement in the newsroom, say thirty years old, men and women alike. Let them learn their trade on a smaller paper where the stakes weren’t so high and an old-timer could warn them about adverbs, and not in a kindly way. A bark with an expletive at the end of it showing that he meant business.

Ned Ayres as an older editor in Washington, D.C.

A newspaper, after all, is presenting its version of a song, that day’s melody. What the world looked like that day and what it might look like tomorrow so that the reader had some idea where he fit in. The paper was a species of seismology, where things were safe and where they weren’t safe, never omitting the trivial: the National League standings or the saga of the senator and the page boy. Of course all that would be gathered at the touch of a fingernail on a cell phone. Perhaps not the seismology. Seismology required a paragraph or better.
For more on Ward Just, here’s a good look at him in a story by Bill Eville in the Vineyard Gazette.

In 1988 the Washingtonian ran a long piece on him titled “In Search of a Soul.” It was a lot about the challenges of understanding and writing about the nation’s capital but also with more insights into how Just saw journalism. I’ll do a post on that tomorrow.
P.S. In reading The Eastern Shore, I was stopped by the graf about Ned Ayres deciding he wanted out of Herman, Indiana. Like a lot of people in Washington, D.C., I grew up elsewhere, in Appleton, Wisconsin. It was a good place to grow up—we rode bicycles everywhere with almost no worries about anything bad happening. But in high school I decided I wasn’t staying.

Looking at this year’s election returns, I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of the Trump voters were people who stayed and who were unhappy that their hometowns haven’t done better while a lot of the Clinton voters, like Ned Ayres, had gone east or west to big cities.



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