June 23, 2017

Just a Journalist

A woman entered my studio recently, looked at the photography hanging on the walls, watched the video playing on the TV set on a table and thumbed through a book of clippings of my newspaper columns, then turned and asked a question:

“Just what is it,” she asked, “that you do?”

Hadn’t given such a question much thought. Never been one to dwell on the why I do something. I just do it. Always thought it self-explanatory.

Apparently not.

“I’m confused,” the woman went on. “Are you a photographer, a writer or a filmmaker?”

I shrugged my sholders as a delaying tactic while searching for an answer that might stop this game of 20 questions.

“I’m a journalist,” I finally answered. “Just a journalist.”

“Oh,” she said as she turned and walked out the door.

Just a journalist. Nothing more, nothing less. Been one most of my life, ever since I sold my first story and photos to The Farmville Herald at age 10. I learned then that a journalist can communicate in both words and pictures and that’s how I’ve done it for the past 47 years.

A friend returned recently from a writer’s workshop where a journalist taught his classes. He didn’t like the journalist’s style of writing — short declaritive sentences with an emphasis on brevity. My friend likes long, flowing sentences that morph into even longer, more flowing essays.

There’s room in this world for both types of writing. I prefer journalistic style: Short, to the point and without fanfare, hyperbole or verbage.

Barton Morris, executive editor of The Roanoke Times when I worked as a reporter there from 1965-69, liked to tell the story of when James Thurber worked for a newspaper in New York and clashed constantly with editors over his long-winded prose.

“Look Thurber,” the frustrated editor said. “I’m tired of your 35-word lead paragraphs. The next story you cover had better be short and to the point or you’re outta here.”

Thurber’s next story concerned a body found in lower Manhattan. He turned in his story with these first two paragraphs:

Dead.

That’s what James Morrison was when police found him Thursday.

“Now that’s more like it,” the editor said. Thurber nodded and quit his newspaper job the next day.

Thurber wasn’t a journalist.

I am.

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