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Aug. 5, 2013, noon

Summer Reading 2013: “Newsmen Speak: Journalists on Their Craft” by Edmond D. Coblentz (1954)

“There is no known substitute on the market for integrity and character. And no synthetic has ever been discovered for guts.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

Newsmen Speak: Journalists on Their Craft, ed. Edmond D. Coblentz

Google Books

With a title that could be taken as an imperative or a declarative — depending on what shoes you’re standing in — Newsmen Speak is a rare compilation of wisdom from “virtually every major leader of American journalism.” Published in 1954, its gems include Arthur Hays Sulzberger on what makes a good newspaper (“Whichever way the cat may jump, we should record it…we believe that you will look after the cat if we inform you promptly, fully, and accurately about its movements”), Arthur Brisbane on journalistic success (“the longer the worse”), and William Randolph Hearst’s seven rules of newspapering.

Editor Edmond D. Coblentz, who spent his journalistic career working for Hearst papers, compiled over thirty testimonies from mid-century media bigwigs about the newspaper business. Some of the entries are instructions from publishers to their staffs, and Coblentz left them largely untouched, with many uses of the imperative “you.” All of them are fascinating, but one entry in particular seems written for 2013 as much as for 1954. It’s from John S. Knight, who had not yet then merged his collection of newspapers into what would become Knight Ridder. He had recently returned to the business of running newspapers after a wartime stint as director of the U.S. Office of Censorship in London. Knight Foundation is now the most prominent philanthropic supporters of journalism (Nieman Lab is among its many grantees), and this note from its co-namesake is a reminder of why today’s newspapermen have to welcome the challenge of the digital age, and that all good change inevitably takes some grit and guts.

A newspaper is still something of a mystery to the average reader and I think we should tell him more about it.

The radio people have done a smooth job of selling, and we have gone at it like plumbers at a grand piano. Since I am not primarily an advertising man, I can’t write your formula, but from observation gained through the years, I can say the old one won’t do.

My only advice on this score is that you support your editor when he tries something new. If he thinks it would be an improvement to departmentalize the paper so that readers may more easily find what they want, let him try it. His idea may be good.

The old fundamental rules of journalism still hold good, but don’t cling to an outmoded formula when the public is expecting a new model.

Take a leaf from the manufacturers who constantly repackage their products to make them more attractive. How long would one of our automotive companies survive if it didn’t constantly improve and modernize its product?
Basically, newspapers must never be lulled into the complacency that condones sloppy editing and shoddy business methods.

Your first duty is to the citizen who buys your newspaper in the belief that it has character and stability, that it is at all times a defender and protector of the rights and liberties of our people, that it does not yield to the pressure of merchant or banker, politician or labor union.

There is no known substitute on the market for integrity and character. And no synthetic has ever been discovered for guts.

POSTED     Aug. 5, 2013, noon
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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