The secret to success: Work like a sonuvabitch

CJR published what it described as some journalists’ aha moments that changed the way they think about journalism. I have my own, which I’ll tell you about on Thursday. First, though, I want to highlight some powerful aha moments from CJR’s list.

Stephen Rodrick of Rolling Stone said a tiny, interesting detail or a dynamite quote often aren’t worth adding to your story in the scheme of things. He once included an unnecessary quote that hurt a subject in his story. “I’ve never cut out anything that I thought was crucial to a story, but it was a stark reminder that you are writing about actual flesh-and-blood human beings. It is not your responsibility to capture them at their very worst. I guess I always knew this, but it took this reminder to make it sink in. A little kindness, even in journalism, goes a long way.”

I had a similar experience when I was a reporter at the News & Observer in 1980 and wrote about Bo Rein, a former N.C. State football coach who died when the plane he was in flew into the Atlantic Ocean. I quoted an aviation expert as saying something to the effect that at the plane’s velocity, slamming into the ocean would be like slamming into concrete. There would be nothing left but pieces of his body. After the first angry call the next day, I realized how insensitive that quote was. And, I hope, learned the same lesson Rodrick tells.

Vicky Ward of CNN remembers the advice an editor gave her about writing versus reporting: “In order to be a really good journalist, you have to be able to walk into a room full of people you don’t know and find a story. Anybody can report on a train crash. But what takes real skill is to walk into a room full of people and come out with a story that is ready to publish. And I said, Well, what about the writing? And she said, The writing is the icing on the cake.”

Someone once told me that good reporting can cover for mediocre writing, but good writing will never make up for mediocre reporting. I’ve used that line dozens of times as an editor and teacher.

Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post mentions what’s become my mantra to students: Work harder than anyone else. “I’m not Alice Munro. I do the best I can, but my writing isn’t art. So putting in that time, becoming almost obsessive about simply working hard, is the only way I can be special.”

I’m convinced that the reason I got ahead in the newspaper business is that I worked hard. I certainly wasn’t the best writer or smartest guy in the room. But I would work like a sonuvabitch.