Tag Archives: journalism

Living in Alaska, she’s got a prayer

August 25, 2013

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107633I’m just catching up with a book that’s been in print for seven years, but the lag in time doesn’t do anything but add richness to Heather Lende’s fine work, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska.”

Haines might be any hamlet in a unique geographic environment, but Lende lifts the southeast Alaska coastal area and the people who live there to a level that turns her writing into a literary classic.

The fact that Lende writes obituaries for the local newspaper isn’t the only reason this ought to be on the required-reading list for journalism majors. How she gathers the details of the deceased lives — face-to-face with the people who knew the person best — is a lesson to be remembered, and the quality of what she learns about them is evidence that her methodology isn’t to be ignored.

Sprinkled through chapters with titles like “Nedra’s Casket” and “When Death Didn’t Stop for Angie” are snippets of her column, “Duly Noted,” tasty snacks to enjoy between the meals that are the satisfying entres. They’re newsy bites, subtledly humorous, frequently ironic, and help give a fuller picture of the goings on in this neck of the woods, from the mundane to the fascinating.

The picture includes spirituality in a variety of traditions, including a mention or two or three of the ministry of Father Jim and Sister Jill from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. In how many other books that make the N.Y. Times bestseller list do you think you’ll read the “Hail Mary” or about the author’s discovery of the rosary and learning how to pray it from a parish prayer group. “The rosary prayers are directed to the Virgin Mary,” this Episcopalian author wrote, “I liked that. It would be easier to talk to a woman, a mother like me, than to God himself.”

Living simply, living in tune with nature, caring about environmental issues, hunting, fishing, family, snowshoeing, skating and life-and-death drama — it’s all in there.

The uniqueness of Alaska makes great copy for those of us in the lower 48, but how Lende tells the stories of life there, that makes great reading.

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Finally, I found Ernie Pyle

February 2, 2013

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here is your war coverYou’d think that as both a WWII junkie and a newspaper guy I’d have read Ernie Pyle before. I’ve read a few of the war correspondent’s columns in anthologies, but never the bulk of his work until I came across two of the three collections of his famed syndicated columns in book form at an antique store.

So, 70 years after Pyle sent his stories from North Africa back to the 300 newspapers who ran his stuff, I ate up “Here Is Your War.”

Pyle’s brisk newspaper prose, the short, tight sentences, the reader-friendly language, the storytelling format combined with the folksy, guy-next-door tone helped me understand why he became a legend both to soldiers, sailors and airmen and to mom and pop back home.

His great technique of identifying sources not just with their name and rank but with their street address back home — “The navigator was Lieutenant Davey Williams, 3505 Miller Street, Fort Worth, Texas.” — was not simply a feel-good for the man in uniform and a way to sell newspapers around the country but a tool that brought reality and truthfulness to the reporting Pyle did. These weren’t fictional characters fighting this war but real people, sons and daughters, neighbors, someone to care about.

Although flatly unable to write about strategy due to war-time censorship, Pyle doesn’t let that stop him from giving the folks at home an understanding of what life was like for those at war. A foxhole is a foxhole, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the drudgery, the terror of shells exploding nearby and especially the destruction and death war causes.

Yet, as good as all these columns are about the early portion of the U.S. involvement in World War II, it’s at the back of “Here Is Your War” that Pyle may have made his best contribution, and that’s not to slight all those earlier columns.

Because as the Allies pushed the Germans out of North Africa, Pyle is able to add analysis to the stories he shares, to give people back home a perspective on the war that might have been perfectly timed. Take this excerpt:
“In the final phase of the Tunisian campaign I never heard a word of criticism of our men. They fought like veterans. They were well handled. They had enough of what they needed. Everything meshed perfectly, and the end was inevitable. . . . Even though they didn’t do too well in the beginning, there was never at any time any question about the Americans’ bravey. It was a matter of being hardened and practiced by going through the flames. Tunisia was a good warm-up field for our armies. . . . The greatest disservice the folks at home did our men over here was to believe we were at last over the hump. For actually — and over here we all knew it — the worst was yet to come.”

Pyle’s columns from the war in Europe went into another book, “Brave Men,” that I’ll be searching for soon. He went to the Pacific Theater afterward, and his columns from there are collected in “Last Chapter.” That book, published posthumously, is just as good as the collection from North Africa, but much shorter. His stories of how an aircraft carrier got flights off — and on — are exactly the kind of reporting we see in the Twin Cities with the “Good Question” segments on the CBS affiliate, WCCO-TV.

This war the United States had been in for four years came to an end for Ernie Pyle just four months before the war itself was to end. A Japanese bullet found him in April, 1945.

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A feast for hungry lovers of superb writing

June 20, 2012

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I’ll tell you how I know good writing: I savor the words and sentences as I read them.

I go back and slowly re-read paragraphs, tasting the language in the same way I slowly enjoy a sip of cabernet or a bite of an Italian beef sandwich, the Chicago kind that drips gardiniere down my arms and onto my shirt.

When writing is good, it lingers in the tastebuds of the brain.

Like you I’ll bet, I usually can’t wait to get to the end of a good book. But with the best books, I tend to read in small bites, stretching out the joy of reading to make it last longer.

I’ve been doing that with “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” There are 400 pages in this Overlook Press hardcover, and although I bought it sometime this winter I’ve just finished the last entry here in June.

Yep, it’s that good.

Columnists, my heroes

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m a newspaper guy that I’ve been so taken with this is collection of commentary pieces that appeared in American newspapers over the past 250-plus years, Ben Franklin’s from before this country even was this country.

But no matter what your life’s work, if you want a thorough refresher course in history, if you want to know what Americans have cared about over the years, if you want to get in touch with the spirit and soul of the United States, just read these columns.

 There’s Ernie Pyle writing from the front lines of World War II about “the God-damned infantry,” Mary McGrory covering the funeral of JFK, Mitch Albom on a college basketball team you’ve never heard of and Mike Royko skewering the infamous Picasso that sits (where else?) but in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.

There’s great sports stuff. You can re-read the renown Grantland Rice’s piece on the famous Notre Dame football backfield – you remember, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.” There’s equally famous Red Smith on the ’51 Dodgers, the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.”

But there’s also intriguing columns about obscure people and events. A guy a never heard of from the LA Times, Bill Plaschke, wrote a beauty of story, one I didn’t want to end, about a letter-writer who used to rip him — and, well, you gotta read that one yourself to find out the ending.

Back in 1956, a Southern writer named Harry Golden wrote this hilarious and courageous column satirizing racism in his neck of the woods with an ingenious idea called “The Vertical Negro Plan.” The theory? Black people are only a problem for whites when they “set.” So his solution to school segregation is to remove all the seats, so that white students don’t have to “sit” next to a black student. And that’s just the start of Golden’s superb commentary piece.

There’s so much more. There’s Art Buchwald and Dave Barry. There’s Ernest Hemingway (yeah, he was a newspaper guy) and Dorothy Thompson. There are writers newspaper junkies of a certain age (always wanted to work that phrase into my writing) hold up as heroes, folks like H.L. Mencken, Langstson Hughes, Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and so many more.

With time running out…

Perhaps the one piece that jumped out at me as the penultimate example of the columnist’s art – superb writing as the clock ticks toward the newspaper’s press deadline — was written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, a piece syndicated in newspapers across the country.

It was carried in papers on 9/12/2001.

It was headlined, “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment.”

It was addressed to the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center towers.

It asked the questions, “What lesson did you hope to teach up by your coward’s attack?…What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that it failed. Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause. Did you want to make us fear you? You just steeled our resolve. Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.”

There’s more, so much more. In this and in just about every entry.

If you savor good writing, treat yourself to a great big serving. But one bite at a time.

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Why a parish just for black Catholics?

February 1, 2012

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St. Peter Claver Church has served black Catholics in Minnesota’s state capital for nearly 125 years, but the archbishop who established the parish wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do.

Archbishop John Ireland

Archbishop John Ireland, the legendary leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, was ahead of the curve when it came to racial equality, preaching that blacks were just as much children of God as were whites.

He acted on what he preached as well.

As St. Paul’s first archbishop (1884 to 1918), he was the first American bishop to allow a black man to study at the diocesan seminary — the St. Paul Seminary — and be ordained a diocesan priest in the United States. Father Stephen Theobald was ordained in 1910 and served at the Cathedral of St. Paul before being named pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul.

Archbishop Ireland’s vision was that there should be no “race problem,” that the United States should be an integrated society. Daniel Rudd, the editor of a widely read black Catholic newspaper of the time, the American Catholic Tribune (circulation 10,000), saw in the archbishop an ally in his own vision that the Catholic Church was the best hope for racial justice and equality for black people in America.

Rudd was a sought-after lecturer, and in 1890, through a series of benefit speeches, he raised funds to build the first permanent church for St. Paul’s St. Peter Claver Parish. Archbishop Ireland had founded St. Peter Claver as a parish for “Colored Catholics” two years earlier and named it after the Spanish Jesuit who ministered to slaves in New Spain. But it wasn’t until 1892 that St. Peter Claver Church was built.

Historian Gary B. Agee, writing in the just-released biography of Rudd, said the black Catholic newspaperman and the archbishop both heard the demand from black Catholics for their own parishes, just as other ethnic groups had theirs, but they had trouble with that line of thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from “A Cry of Justice: Daniel Rudd and His Life in Black Catholicism, Journalism and Activism, 1854-1933″ (University of Arkansas Press):

“Rudd’s position on the existence of separate black parishes seems to have paralleled that of Archbishop Ireland. For example, when Ireland dedicated a new black parish in the city of St. Paul in 1892, the prelate expressed some ambivalence over the matter. He stated the establishment of a separate church for African American Catholics was only a temporary measure designed to benefit blacks. Further, Ireland desired all races to worship together. He also emphasized the fact that blacks were free to attend any of the city’s parishes.”

In his newspaper, Daniel Rudd echoed much the same sentiment, again excerpting from Agee’s book:

“If every so-called Colored Catholic church in the world was done away with instantly the Colored Catholics would be at home in any other Catholic church beneath the Sun.”

Obviously, given the racial history of our country and our church, both Archbishop Ireland and Daniel Rudd were ahead of their time in their vision.

 

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If you’re squeamish about photos of children dying by starvation — that’s a good thing, we all should be

August 4, 2011

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This photo of the emaciated boy that appeared on Page 1 of the New York Times should make all of us squirm a bit and swallow hard.

Caring that millions in the Horn of Africa while we’re in the world means we’re still human. Doing something about it — Archbishop John Nienstedt has asked for a second collection this weekend at parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — would apply something tangible to that humanity. One less lunch out? We can all do that.

I sometimes wonder, when we use two-thirds of the front page of The Catholic Spirit to bring the famine in Africa to people’s attention, when even the pope is calling for aid to these starving people, if our readers even care what’s going on on the other side of the world. The good thing is that the instincts of Catholic Spirit’s journalist are right on target; if the New York Times sees this crisis as important enough for its readers, I’m hopeful that Catholic Spirit readers see it that way, too.

Here’s a great explanation from the Times folks about why they ran this photo.

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The Catholic Spirit garners journalism awards

June 27, 2011

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The prospect of winning awards isn’t what motivates us Catholic Spirit staff members to produce the best newspaper and website that we can. We’re driven instead by the call to spread the Good News, to keep area Catholics informed about important issues in the church and to inspire them to live their faith to the fullest.

But it is nice when our work earns kudos from peers and fellow professionals. That happened last week at the Catholic Media Convention in Pittsburgh, where The Catholic Spirit garnered several Catholic press awards.

Two awards deserve special mention:

• Associate publisher Bob Zyskowski was honored with the 2011 St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association. It is the CPA’s highest award, recognizing an individual’s “outstanding contributions to Catholic journalism.”

• The Catholic Spirit won second place in the “general excellence” category for large-circulation newspapers. The award takes into account all aspects of a publication — from the writing and photography, to the design and editing. The judges called it a “clean, well-organized, well-edited paper” with “good local content.”

Other awards TCS received from the CPA were:

• 1st place — best editorial section for “This Catholic Life.”

• 1st place — best editorial on a national or international issue for “Woody, Buzz and the meaning of life” by editor Joe Towalski.

• 2nd place — best news writing for the TCS news team series “7 Principles for Planning,” which examined the challenges facing the archdiocese as it prepared its strategic plan for parishes and schools.

• 2nd place — best regular arts and leisure column for “The Outdoors,” by photographer/writer Dave Hrbacek.

• 2nd place — best coverage of the Year for Priests for a special section titled “Celebrating Our Priests.”

• 2nd place — best editorial on a local issue for “Health care policy: Whose side is God on? by Joe Towalski.

Other Catholic organizations also presented awards recently, and The Catholic Spirit was recognized by two of them:

• Dave Hrbacek was awarded the National Right to Life’s 14th Annual Excellence in Journalism Award for his story, “Electrician sparks life commitment by turning down abortion clinic job.” NRLC President Carol Tobias said, “We are proud to recognize Dave Hrbacek for his outstanding work and extend our deepest gratitude for his outstanding journalism on behalf of life.”

And from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, TCS received three awards:

• Bob Zyskowski garnered first place honors in the “Visits to the Missions” category for his story package, “Venezuelans, priests celebrate 40-year gift exchange.”

• Staff writer Julie Carroll and Dave Hrbacek took first place in the “Mission News” category for their story “Situation in Haiti still critical.”

• Deacon Mickey Friesen, director of the archdiocese’s Center for Mission, received an honorable mention for TCS’ World Mission Sunday 2010 supplement.

Have an idea for a possible award-winning story? Contact us and give us the details. We always enjoy working on a good story!

 

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Inside the head and heart of famed newspaper cartoonist Bill Mauldin

February 5, 2011

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On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, the back page of the Chicago Sun-Times carried what may be the most memorable editorial cartoon of the 20th century.

Cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s drawing of a weeping Abraham Lincoln from his Lincoln Memorial chair captured the emotion of a nation when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That Mauldin was able to get to the core of human feelings shouldn’t have been surprising to those who had been able to literally be in the foxholes with soldiers during World War II thanks to the cartoons of “Willie & Joe” that Mauldin drew from the front lines and newspapers across the nation carried.

How Mauldin was able to document history in the space of an editorial page cartoon is documented itself by Todd DePastino in a thorough biography published by Norton in 2008 and now out in paperback, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.”

There’s all the usual biographic information, of course, but DePastino takes us inside the complex artist-journalist-author to learn what drove the man to do all he did. Readers will learn not only how Mauldin crafted those “Willie & Joe” cartoons by why he did them and why they were important enough to society to earn Mauldin the Pulitzer Prize.

The war-time “Willie & Joe” cartoons first made Mauldin a celebrity, but the cartoonist’s path to fame took him first to Army life where pettiness and inequality reigned, allowing Mauldin to take the side of the underdog, the abused foot soldier, with the aim of helping them make it through the grim, grimy, death-filled, often hopeless side of combat and army life.

Mauldin’s confrontation with Gen. George Patton — and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower telling Patton to leave the cartoonist alone — is a freedom-of-the-press scene that never made it into the award-winning “Patton” movie but DePastino tells well.

Like each of us, though, Mauldin was not without his faults, and DePastino isn’t shy about recording the lows of his subject’s life as well as the highs. The ambiguity of human life becomes clear as we read how this one talented artist could prick the conscience of so many — and really have an impact that forces change — while having conscience failings of his own in his personal life.

More than a few Mauldin cartoons help illustrate each chapter, but this isn’t a picture book. For a complete list of that kind of work, go to http://www.billmauldin.com. Most of his work is out of print, but they might make for a fun search when your browsing your local used books store. — bz

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Small-town editor, big-time stage

July 16, 2009

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“Picking the bones of Eleven Presidents and Others,”
by Jerry Moriarity

The subtitle of Jerry Moriarity’s self-published collection of notes and anecdotes identifies it as a work “By a Journalist with Presidential Credentials.”

That’s both the good news and the bad.

Working for and editing small-town newspapers like the Star-Courier in Kewanee, Ill., Moriarity was able to get press credentials to cover presidential events — including White House press conferences. Over a 40-year newspaper career, that gave him the ability to collect a double-handful of interesting stories about U.S. presidents from Truman through Bush II.

You got to hand it to the guy, a self-proclaimed Irish Catholic Democrat who lives half the year on Little Pine Lake near Perham, Minn.: He was there, he was paying attention, and he kept great notes. Along with those interesting anecdotes, Moriarity pulled together a fun and insightful bit which he called “creating an ideal president.” Naming each of the 11 presidents he interviewed, he offered his opinion about the characteristic of each that he valued.
For example:

  • Truman — feisty decisiveness;
  • Eisenhower — popularity;
  • Reagan — intuition.

Too close to the newsmakers?

As good reading and as insightful as “Picking the Bones” is, I couldn’t help but get the sense that at some point Moriarity’s “covering” the presidents wasn’t more about his own being near the seat of power than about reporting. I’m not sure what the editor of the Kewanee, Ill., Star-Courier gets for his readers by being at a presidential press conference.

I have a hard time with all the posed photos of a newsman and the person he is supposed to be writing objectively about.

And some of the questions that Moriarity writes that he asked those presidents made the journalist in me squirm.

There’s a wonderful little story about the author being in the right place at the right time to show Sen. John F. Kennedy — campaigning for the presidency in Peoria, Ill., in 1959 — the way to the men’s room! Moriarity says he’ll direct him if Kennedy will answer a question for him. The future president comes out of the restroom and makes good on his promise to answer a question in return for the favor.

So what does Moriarity ask? “What is Peter Lawford really like?”

Yikes!

Balance, for the most part

Moriarity doesn’t pull punches for the most part, telling it like he saw it. He calls Lyndon Baines Johnson “a dangerous egotistical hypocrite,” but one who knew how to wield power and did some good by pushing civil rights legislation through Congress.

Moriarity himself became a bit of a celebrity by writing an editorial that called for reasonableness in judging a disgraced Richard M. Nixon. The piece was carried — by Moriarity’s count — in 573 newspapers across the country.

The chapter on Nixon is where a touch of hypocrisy blooms. Moriarity acknowledges that he “supported Nixon,” but them is critical of the folks at National Public Radio when, touring NPR studios, he sees a sign that reads “Impeach Nixon.” Pretty hard to charge others with being biased when you are, too.

On balance, though, by publishing this memoir Moriarity has preserved some great anecdotes and given a glimpse of a world of reporting that is no more, for better and for worse. I’m glad he did. — bz

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