Oh my, this picture of journalism:
That’s my old friend Jim Timmermann, the best editor I ever had, who died last week. He wouldn’t want me to bury the lede.
A few days ago, staring at a computer monitor in frustration as I tried to figure out what to type, I quipped thus….
Journalism 1) Understand the thing. 2) Tell a story about it. Getting the steps in the right order is my biggest challenge.
— John Fleck (@jfleck) November 2, 2015
There is a great risk in journalism of being distracted by “story”, by which I mean some arresting narrative that will grab your reader. “Story” is critical, but my point with that glib tweet was that it’s the wrong place to start, but that it’s often the only place to start.
Many years ago I had the great good fortune to work in the newsroom of the Pasadena Star-News with a smart young journalist named Jim Timmermann. We were kids, products of fine 1970s-80s-era liberal arts educations (Jim from Pomona College in Claremont, me from Whitman in Walla Walla) and largely self taught as journalists.
Jim was insatiably curious about how things worked. For much of the time we shared the newsroom he was the paper’s business editor, but he wasn’t much interested in stories about businesses. He wanted to understand the nature and structure of our community’s economy. He recognized that “business” was just a piece of that, and the stories came from understanding the thing and only then finding the stories that illustrate the thing. It’s sorta like the distinction between anecdote and data, though in neither case is the line separating the two clear, and in journalism it’s a difficult line to find as you’re in the midst of making a newspaper every day, doing inductive reasoning on the fly. It’s mostly an impossible goal, because you’re writing stories, explaining the world 500 words at a time, a collection of anecdotes, what I mean by “story” in my glib tweet. Impossible yes, but a good goal nevertheless. (Sorry, Jim, for the run-on sentences, but it’s my blog, and I’m in tears, and I’ve got no editor.)
I mostly didn’t work for Jim, but he was my closest colleague and good friend and we spent many hours talking about the thing, whatever that thing was lurking behind the anecdotes we were busily jamming into the newspaper every day. I don’t think either of us at the time grasped how hard a task it was, because we were young and had huge printing presses in the basement and ink delivered, I’m not making this up, in tanker trucks (if you were in the newsroom late enough in the evening, you could feel the building shudder when the press run started) and the great joy of making a newspaper every day.
Jim was a fine man, a deeply religious, moral man who loved his family and tried to make the world better with the modest tools at hand.
I also am reminded by Andrea Goodell’s lovely obituary that he was a Jeopardy winner. If I recall his telling of the story (this was before I knew him) he won a set of Skyway Luggage on Wheels.