Serving no story before its time

newsmen-editing425Good stories come along sometimes that can’t be told immediately — if they are ever told at all.

Such is the case with a great tip passed along earlier this week by a good friend. But I’ve been unable to confirm a couple of details, so the story waits. Maybe it will be told soon.

How I learned the importance of holding a story until it is ready is a lesson I’ll never forget from my newspaper days. It involved perhaps the worst work-related chewing out I have ever received.

I was working as an assistant city editor at the Lincoln Journal Star, where Joe Starita was the city editor.  He was a former New York bureau chief and investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. He had grown up in Nebraska and had come back to Lincoln, where he had gone to college. He was a wiry and tightly wound bundle of energy who seemed to live on a diet of cigarettes, Coke, coffee, deli sandwiches and chocolate bars. He also had a bit of an Italian temper. (And I have a bit of male-pattern baldness.)

Once, when the paper published a poorly written story that had been turned in late by two reporters and not edited nearly enough by me, I got a full dose of Joe. The day the story was printed, he was waiting for me when I came into work that afternoon. We crammed into his office, which was the size of a small closet. He handed me a copy of the story on which he had drained a red-ink pen because he had made so many editing marks. He yelled and growled and swore and hollered. It seemed to last forever.

Finally, he told me to go get the two reporters who had written the story. The four of us then crammed into Joe’s office. And the yelling, growling, swearing and hollering resumed. At one point, one of the reporters threw some gasoline on the fire by arguing a point with Joe, who wasn’t in the mood to debate.

To make a long story short, I learned a valuable lesson: It’s OK to hold a story if it isn’t good enough to publish.

It’s a lesson that applies to many walks of life.

Joe Starita had a lasting way of teaching me this lesson, but he wasn’t the first editor who tried. Earlier in my career, as a young reporter, I grumbled once to the editor who held one of my stories. He said it needed more work. I thought it should have been published immediately.

At the time, at least some veteran editors were of the belief that a story wasn’t really news until it had been published by the newspaper. That was the view of this particular editor, who pointed out that accounts about the Battle of the Little Bighorn weren’t reported until July 6, 1876 — 11 days after the battle.

Of course, both the battle and my editor’s admonishment happened in the days before the Internet. Technology has changed and such a story would get reported much faster today, which most of us have come to expect. Like many news consumers, when something really big is happening in my world today, I want to know about it as it happens. Usually, I’ll turn to Twitter to see what is being said or reported as a story breaks.

But that doesn’t mean every story has to be told in bursts of 140 characters. Or even that every story has to be told immediately. So, for today, I’m sitting on a good story that will be even better once I’ve talked to a few more people.

It’s a story that will be told when it’s time. And not until then.

2 thoughts on “Serving no story before its time

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