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Mark Twain on life in the newsroom

mark twainMy favorite fictionalized account of life in a newsroom comes from a a little satirical Mark Twain piece called “Journalism in Tennessee.”

In it, Twain plays a young, naive reporter who secures employment at The Morning Glory and Johnson County War Whoop and sets about writing the day’s community news dispatches from neighboring newspapers:

The editors of the Semi-Weekly Earthquake evidently labor under a misapprehension with regard to the Ballyhack railroad. It is not the object of the company to leave Buzzardville off to one side. On the contrary, they consider it one of the most important places along the line, and consequently have no desire to slight it. The gentlemen of the Earthquake will, of course, take pleasure in making the correction.

Twain’s editor scowls angrily at the copy, and attacks it with his red pen “till its own mother wouldn’t have known it if it had one”:

The inveterate liars of the Semi-Weekly Earthquake are evidently endeavoring to palm off upon a noble and chivalrous people another of their vile and brutal falsehoods with regard to that most glorious conception of the nineteenth century, the Ballyhack railroad. The idea that Buzzardville was to be left at one side originated in their own fulsome brains – or rather in the settlings which they regard as brains. They had better swallow this lie if they want to save their abandoned reptile carcasses the cowhiding they so richly deserve.

Sometimes I wish American newspapers still wrote like that. They’d be more fun to read. I secretly agree with Twain’s editor, who tells him, “Now that’s the way to write – peppery and to the point. Mush-and-milk journalism gives me the fan-tods.”

Maybe my position makes me too biased to see the story primarily as a cautionary tale on the evils of editors, though I suspect that’s the way plenty of newspaper readers take it. Many of our critics seem to assume we regularly skew reporters’ copy to satisfy our own predilections or those of our corporate overlords.

I’ve had readers, and reporters, tell me the conventional wisdom is that we editors are green eye-shaded monsters who twist the words of those poor scribes to sell a few headlines. A public official once accused me of putting a featured quotation at a certain position on a page to make him look bad.

I think he credits me with too much Machiavellian skill. I couldn’t slant the paper like that if I wanted to. We have enough trouble some days getting the facts right, let alone the spin.

I read a study once that 25 percent of all errors in newspapers were actually put there by editors. I don’t think they do it on purpose (no one likes being wrong less than editors), but I’ve done it myself out of a mistaken belief I could improve upon the reporter’s words.

I’m sorry for those occasional sloppy lapses in grammar and syntax, but I won’t apologize for trying to get reporters to write stories people will want to read, stories that are peppery and to the point.

There’s a fine line, of course, between writing stories that grab readers and sensationalizing the news. I sometimes worry, though, that American newspapers have gotten too bland and safe for their own good.

Editorial opinions have no place, of course, in news stories and reporters should keep their opinions to themselves. But that doesn’t mean news shouldn’t be written with drama and flair. And as long as you don’t use the news to play politics the news columns, your readers should know where you stand .

And if you think I’m wrong, you can always write me a letter and give the verbal cowhiding I so richly deserve.