Don’t look back and other advice

Allan Fotheringham June 27 1994

Don’t look back and other advice

Allan Fotheringham June 27 1994


Don’t look back and other advice


It is the time of year. High school graduation. Career-planning time. The letters arrive. What’s with journalism? Any hopes? How do you get into it? Would you recommend it as a profession? What advice could you give?

The letters have arrived at the right spot. This department is a world authority on free advice. A. J. Liebling said newspapers can be more fun than a quiet girl. That is true, but you must follow strict rules.

The finest wisdom ever given for getting through life, which journalism sometimes resembles, was offered by Satchel Paige, who could throw a curveball better than even the most devious managing editor. Because he was black, he wasn’t allowed into the major leagues until he was past his prime but was still pumping his high hard one at age 56. He survived on the mound because of the six rules he followed:

1. Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.

2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

4. Go very lightly on the vices such as carrying on in society. The social rumble ain’t restful.

5. Avoid running at all times.

6. Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.

This is very good stuff, philosophy that has sustained me through these too many years, especially the suggestion to stay away from the social rumble, which is most tiring.

Sports people are very good on advice, since they are in a racket almost as competitive as newspapering, where the inmates would die for a byline. Jack Hurley, the old Seattle fisticuffs manager, advised: “If your mother can’t cook, run away from home.” Also: “Never trust a young man who smokes a pipe. All the time they sit around trying to look thoughtful. Actually, they’re trying to figure out how to steal a hot stove.”

All true. If you want to be a success in journalism, there are additional tips.

Never argue with a woman.

Read. If you don’t read, you can’t write.

If a politician offers to tell you something off the record, excuse yourself to go to the loo and don’t come back. Hustle to find what he wants to hide and then print it.

Go barefoot as much as possible. It does the soul good.

Stay away from journalism schools. You can’t teach journalism. You either got it or you ain’t.

Don’t talk in the mornings. No good has ever come from it.

Learn to listen. (Newspapers were better before the tape recorder was invented.) Most people feel they are misunderstood—which is how bartenders make a living. Most people don’t really listen while you’re explaining how you broke your ankle skiing, they’re simply waiting so they can tell you about the gallbladder operation they had four years ago.

High people feel they’re simply misunderstood. If you just mumble . . . really? ... is that right?... never realized that... hmmm . . . it’s absolutely amazing what they will blurt out. Ask Bob Woodward.

Editors are people who separate the wheat from the chaff—and then print the chaff.

If you’re thinking about getting married, a good test is first to travel two weeks in a car with him/her with another couple.

Never worry about things you cannot affect. With this in mind, try not to think about Rollerblading, O. J. Simpson, potato chips, Madonna, stirrup pants and Sheila Copps.

If you know it, print it. There are plenty of libel lawyers around. They love the business.

Never have lunch with a public relations man. He’s always a failed reporter.

Never censor yourself. If something has to be killed, make the editor kill it. Hell is filled with reporters who didn’t hand in the tough stuff for fear it would be rejected.

Do not try to dress too well. It will only make your friends suspicious. Stay out of the office as much as possible. You’ll never learn anything sitting around talking to other newspaper folk.

Be wary of people you have never seen laughing.

Murray Kempton said editorial writers are people who come down out of the hills after the battle and shoot the wounded. Every newspaperman should be an editorial writer—once.

Read George Bernard Shaw before you’re 20, George Santayana before you’re 30 and George Bums after you’re 40.

Write the way you talk. Write the way other people talk. Write as if you’re talking to someone. Jane Austen this isn’t.

Travel. You can’t be a scribbler unless you travel, which gives you the perspective on how good your own country is. The people who appreciate Canada the most are the people who have been away from it.

You will learn more from reading other people’s stuff than reading your own.

All the great newspaper people come out of the sports department. It’s because they’re enthusiastic about something. I’ve never heard about anyone being enthusiastic about covering sewer bylaws.

Don’t get married until you’re 30.

When you go to university, take everything—economics, psychology, political science, Latin, fine arts—except creative writing and English. If you don’t have those imbued in your soul in the first place, forget it. Become an embalmer. Or a public relations man.