Departing Oregonian reporter: ‘If you write a story to win an award, you won’t get one’

Two-time Pulitzer winner Richard Read wrote this farewell note to Oregonian colleagues after taking the paper’s buyout and leaving the paper on Dec. 31. “Hopefully other reporters can get a little bit of his wisdom,” writes the Oregonian staffer who forwarded Read’s email.

From: Richard Read
Subject: Bye for now

Dear friends-

It’s time to say goodbye. I’ll miss each one of you. I can’t resist dispensing some advice, worth what you pay for it, to reporters especially.

Richard Read

Richard Read

Manage your editors with patience. Some of them labor under the misimpression that you work for them, not vice versa. Learn from each one. Learn from your fellow reporters. Always have 10 story ideas; editors fill a vacuum. Marvel each day that you get paid to receive an education. Treat your sources with respect. Every so often, try doing something instead of just writing about doing something.

Fight for the little person, the voiceless, the abused and seldom seen. Expose corruption, injustice and ignorance.

Stay safe. Some of us, including Helen Jung, who still works with you, have risked our lives in war zones for The Oregonian. Do not try this at home. Remember, when covering a volcano, not to interview the eruption. I knew two photographers and a volcanologist who died that way in Japan, along with their driver and a cop who tried to save them. Another time, Oregonian reporter Joan Laatz Jewett, speeding with a photographer at the wheel to cover a Clackistan shooting, noticed the end of a gun barrel and a puff of smoke. The bullet hit the news car’s windshield frame to the right of Joan’s head./CONTINUES

Be the change. When I began at The Oregonian in 1981, city editors rolled up sheets of our typed prose and placed them in cylinders. Vacuum tubes sucked the cans through the guts of 1320 SW Broadway to be scanned. There was no Internet, no social media; we wrote down one another’s phone messages. You must navigate the digital universe while maintaining timeless freedoms guarded by the First Amendment. No other country has that protection. No other state has the same shield law as Oregon, protecting reporters against compelled testimony.

Pick your topics on the merits. If you write a story to win an award, you won’t get one. Work on writing by reading, watching movies and listening to stories. Practice observation. Develop your voice. Have fun, and so will your readers.

There’s no higher or harder form of the craft than being a foreign correspondent. Moments after arriving somewhere as a deaf illiterate mute, you must generate stories that translate one culture to another. The only way it can be done is to find a good fixer, like Mikhail in Khabarovsk and Ahmad in Kabul. Choose a foreign correspondent or two; follow their work. Deconstruct their reporting. Watch particularly how they convey a sense of place. Try seeing your own country through foreign eyes.

Max out your 401k. Marry a corporate lawyer. Or, trust in luck and fall in love. Raising a child is the best adventure of all.

Historian Henry Steele Commager said that each generation wrongly believes that theirs is the most complex, most challenging era. Sure, news organizations are undergoing massive creative destruction. But our famed publisher Henry Pittock had to pioneer pony express and stagecoach delivery of wire dispatches to beat steamers carrying news from San Francisco. As a result, The Oregonian scooped everyone on President Lincoln’s assassination.

There’ll always be demand for people who know how to dig up information and explain it. If I’m wrong about that, or any of this, pass Safeway in 2016 and toss me a quarter.

Best, -Rich