Newspaper writing ... with ‘color’
Over 60 percent of college students change majors at least once. I was among the 60 percent.
I was a “bug boy” collecting critters in the woods since I was 8. But during my sophomore year at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, I was also craving for something more. So I ventured over to the university career counselor office and took a “Strong Vocational Interest Inventory,” a test developed in 1927 by psychologist Edward Kellog Strong, Jr. to help people exiting the military find suitable jobs. The survey consisted of pairs of activities where you selected one over the other.
When I returned for the results, their first observation was that they had never had anybody score so low in “business!” But the results showed that I had a high proclivity for journalism. So I scheduled my next semester full of prerequisite courses in that discipline.
The course in “Report and Newspaper Writing” was taught by a kindly white-haired about-to-retire journalism professor. I learned how to end my pieces with ”-30-.” And the inverted pyramid style is where you provide an overview of the whole story in the first paragraph and readers can then decide just how much further they want to read for details. But unlike my science reports, I kept getting “C’s” on my fact-laden submissions. In class, and on my paper markup, he kept talking about a “lack of color.”
Then one evening, a squirrel jumped into a university transformer and the lights went out across half of campus. In my dormitory, we felt our way along the hallways and out into a moonlit night. Some boys yelled “panty raid” and groups headed toward the girls dormitories that were still lit. But others headed down a side street that was a nearby convenient red light district.
That black-out was news that all of us would be required to report for class. The next day, I stopped in at the police precinct and gathered the relevant data. I wrote up my standard report. Then I took that report and removed absolutely every factual tidbit and substituted what I guessed my professor called “color.” I can remember the beginning lines today, over 50 years later, that described the “surge of hundreds of male students snaking down Cherry Street, hurtling rocks through brothel windows....”
I handed in this assignment twice: my standard fact-laden report with my name on it and the fact-less report-with-color but without any name.
The next class, my professor handed back our graded papers. But he proclaimed he was puzzled. The best paper of all lacked a name, and we had all handed in papers. He then proceeded to read this best paper about the “male students snaking down Cherry Street....”
I had given a test. And my journalism professor had flunked. And I have the grade to prove it! I did not go back to class the rest of that semester.
The next semester, I was back in my biology labs, having lost one semester and some GPA.
But over the years, I have come to value the many other lessons taught to good journalists. For instance, unless you are a direct witness to an event, you need to check two sources before going to press. This rule, so clearly evident in confirming the “deep throat” allegations in the Nixon investigations, still remains a mainstay of good print journalism.
Today, I find that most print journalism continues to use high standards. Unfortunately, the movement to fast-turnover digital “reporting” has resulted in a lot less fact-checking in the “online press.”
However, that Strong interest inventory I took as a sophomore was not necessarily wrong. Thanks to that journalism class, I learned to communicate science and education to a broader public — in over 500 newspaper columns and articles, and over a thousand research and book reviews. And I learned proofreading and copymarking, which I use daily as editor of two journals.
But my interest in “business” has continued to remain as low as the scales can measure.
Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.