Wick Communications

The Books

The following are books bound to inspire. I’ve asked some of the best journalists I know to contribute to a list of books for and about journalism. I’ve asked them to include a few thoughts on what makes the books special. When we’re finished here, I expect to have the makings of quite a library.

“The Journalist and the Murderer.” Janet Malcolm’s compelling argument that all journalists are immoral focuses on a curious fraud case brought by a guy who killed his family against an author who misrepresented their friendship a wee bit. it was named one of the top non-fiction books of the 20th century. Clay.

“The Elements of Style.” This one may almost be too obvious to merit inclusion here. This is the bible of grammar guides for newspaper writers and it’s hard to imagine anyone getting through journalism school without reading this once or twice. The 50-year-old text is short and to the point and full of the sort of loving yet inflexible rules your grandfather may have passed down. Keep it at your desk as an every-day reference. Clay.

“The Times of My Life.” Max Frankel. Former editor of the NYTimes, war correspondent in Nazi Germany as a Jew. Illustrative, too, of the politics of a big city newsroom, as Frankel settles some scores w/rival Abe Rosenthal. Frankel was given the job as editorial page editor as consolation. Good look at editorial writing departments at big paper and how they’re not unlike community papers w/the pressures to influence opinions one way or another. Steve Woody, publisher of the Daily Press in Montrose and Team Spirit group manager.

“Confessions of an SOB.” Al Neuharth. Better than expected, as I recall. Poor boy from South Dakota starts America’s Newspaper and leads Gannett. Would think Tom Lee has a copy. I’ve got a loaner as well. Woody again.

“Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She.” Molly Ivins. The late, great liberal columnist gives ‘em hell. So provocative that I pulled the column while in Roanoke Rapids. (The other, Dr. Ruth.) Woody.

“On Writing Well,” William Zinsser. It’s been used in college journalism courses for going on 30 years. It’s not so much a textbook as a plea for humanity.
It is organized in useful nuggets – chapters are called “The Lead,” “The Interview,” and so on. And every sentence is of biblical import. For instance, “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words.” That should be written on a billboard. And Zinsser, who wrote a book about spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates that is every bit as pleasant as spring on the West Coast of Florida, was engaged in the battle against sports clichés long before I climbed aboard. I’ll leave you with what he had to say on that topic:
“The man who first thought of ‘southpaw’ had a right to be pleased. I like to think that he allowed himself the small smile that is due of anyone who invents a good novelty. But how long ago was that?” Clay

“The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire,” by Richard McCord. (This one was suggested by both Wick CEO John Mathew and Cooper Group Manager Tom Lee

“The Powers That Be,” by David Halberstram. Great job of tracing the origins of CBS, Washington Post and others as they grew from little into powerful influences on American society. Group Manager (and University of Missouri journalism school grad) David Lewis.

“The Trust,” by Alex Jones and Susan Tifft. The Sulzberger family let these two Times writers into their lives and their empire, warts and all, and revealed why the Times is the nation’s newspaper of record and the greatest newspaper in the world. Woody

“City Room,” by Arthur Gelb. He started as a copy boy in the Times’ news room. With initiative and grit, he covered crime, top stories and rose to become managing editor. Gelb is currently the head of the Times’ foundation. Steve Woody

“The Lady Upstairs,” by Marilyn Nissenson. It’s the bio of Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the NY Post, one of the oldest newspapers in the U.S., founded by Alexander Hamilton. Schiff was an unapologetic liberal in the Eisenhower ‘50s, one of the first papers to come out publicly for civil rights. The book is rich in anecdotes. She was somewhat promiscuous; one of her lovers was the publisher of the Times (Lord Beaverbrook) in London and there’s a story about the “room of gold” regarding the coverage of Napoleon. The best part is how hands-on she was during tough financial times, post-war, the 1950s, before selling to Murdoch. Steve Woody

“A Good Life, Newspapering and Other Adventures,” by Ben Bradlee. Watergate, Kennedy, Janet What’s Her Name (who made it up—Jimmy’s Story). Bradlee influenced journalists for a generation while enjoying himself thoroughly. Steve Woody

“Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the Los Angeles Times Dynasty,” by Douglas McDougal. Illustrates how a newspaper partnered w/the business community to build a city, and a thriving newspaper, sometimes looking the other way w/ethics. Chandler was glamorous and was an Olympic weight-lifter. The Times was slow to recognize changing demographics in its readership and other media. Chandler was voted off the board and the paper was sold, and I think, has been re-sold, since the book came out. Steve Woody

“The Last Word,” by Marilyn Siegel. A compilation of NYTimes obits and reasoning on why some people, who lead otherwise non-descript lives, have their obits published in the Times. I wrote obits for the Port Arthur (Tex.) News, calling families, etc., back when they were free. I’ve a special fondness for obits since. Elvis’ cook is profiled, as is the kid who Babe Ruth talked to before hitting a home run, etc. When the obit team calls from the Times, it validates a life to some degree and reaffirms our mortality. A treasure. Woody again (and more of his suggestions are to come.)

“The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today,” by Peter Pritchard. This is one John Mathew mentioned to me in an e-mail. For those who came into the business in the last 15 years or so, it may be hard to understand just how much the earth moved with the advent of USA Today. Suddenly we all had to think graphically and color was everywhere. I worked for a Gannett newspaper shortly after the nation’s newspaper was born and it was a heady time. And that Al Neuharth… he was a pip. Clay Lambert

“Writing for Story,” by Jon Franklin. A must-read for anybody even thinking about doing narrative journalism. Jimmy Boegle, editor of the Tucson Weekly.

“The Night of the Gun,” by David Carr. Frankly, this book is only peripherally related to journalism, but damn, it’s a good story about addiction. And I think we’ve all known someone like Carr if we’ve been around journalism for a while — troubled but brilliant. Boegle again.

“The Subversive Copy Editor,” by Carol Fisher Saller. This slim volume from the online Q&A editor of the Chicago Manuel of Style deals mostly with the complicated relationship between writers and editors. It’s invigorating for editors who may feel underwhelmed by the intrinsic value of what they do for their organization. Clay.

“Newspaper Days,” H.L. Mencken. Memoirs provide a six-year slice of the life of one of the most celebrated journalists of the 20th century. It is remarkable how little has changed… though I wouldn’t recommend “synthesizing news,” which was a practice by which he and other beat writers for the competition got their stories straight before going to print. Really enjoyable.

  1. Night of the Gun is one helluva good book. Strongly recommend.

  2. The Careful Writer. Theodore Bernstein. Should be on every writer’s desk. A compendium of language usage rules and guidelines, written with the late Bernstein’s gentle humor.

  3. If you’re a copy editor, or are thrown into the job on occasion: “The Elephants of Style” and “Lapsing into a Comma,” both by Bill Walsh. These books have that wonderful quality of being entertaining and enlightening at the same time. You won’t put it down without having learned something. Great stuff.

  4. Great list! I also fondly recall “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” but I read it years ago.
    Maybe even “Fletch,” the fun and smart novel, not the stupid Chevy Chase movie.

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