The adviser is young and talented and ambitious, and he’s building a first-class high school journalism program, so I was more than willing to speak to his newspaper class — 20 or so teens of all stripes. Geeks. Whip-smart girls. Smart-ass boys. Kids just trying to find a place and a purpose.
I liked them immediately. At first, they had a hard time figuring out why this old guy wanted to talk about himself so much but they warmed up to my humor and occasional use of profanity and, toward the end, even asked two or three intelligent questions, which is rare. Typically, asking an American high school student “Do you have any questions?” is like asking porch dogs “Did you enjoy King Lear?”
At one point during my presentation, I casually mentioned a story in our local daily newspaper and, as an afterthought, added, “Did any of you read that?”
No one had.
“Do any of you read newspapers?”
No, they did not.
“Really? You’re in a newspaper class and on a student newspaper staff, and you don’t read a newspaper?”
I compared it to choir members who never listen to music, to film critics who never watch movies. So, I instructed them to read or at least read-through a newspaper occasionally, though I doubt many of them will. It’s not in their blood. All this chatter about administrative censorship and budget shortages and such is a lot of silly hand-wringing compared to the real threat to scholastic journalism, and that is this: Most kids don’t read. Those who do don’t read enough.
You can extrapolate from there.
It’s so easy to identify a young person who reads. They know stuff. They understand tone and pace and flow. They know how to use dialogue and how to describe a scene. They understand irony and satire. They can use sarcasm without offending their readers too much.
So, your New Year’s resolution should be to read a good daily newspaper at least once or twice a week. You don’t need to read the entire thing. Just look for a story or two that piques your interest, then study the lead, pay attention to voice, and notice how the story is woven together. The more you do this, the better writer you’ll become.
Here’s a little example: I found this story in the Dec. 2, 2011 edition of The New York Times. It’s by James Dao, and it concerns military veterinarians who are treating combat dogs for post-traumatic stress disorder.
SAN ANTONIO — The call came into the behavior specialists here from a doctor in Afghanistan. His patient had just been through a firefight and now was cowering under a cot, refusing to come out.
Apparently, even the chew toys hadn’t worked.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, thought Dr. Walter F. Burghart Jr., chief of behavior medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. Specifically, canine PTSD.
If anyone needed evidence of the frontline role played by dogs in war these days, here is the latest: the four-legged, wet-nosed troops used to sniff our mines, track down enemy fighters and clear buildings are struggling with the mental strains of combat nearly as much as their human counterparts.
Is that great or what? First, it’s an entirely original story. It doesn’t regurgitate information I got eight hours earlier on ESPN or MSNBC. Second, it’s beautifully written. I can picture the German shepherd, cowering under the cot. Third, it hooks me with this sentence: “Even the chew toys hadn’t worked.”
I feel for that dog.
Also, I’m going to remember this story. Down the road at some point, I am going to be working on a story, and I’m going to need help because my piece won’t be coming together quite right, and I’m going to employ some of the tone and pace and flow in James Dao’s story about military dogs with post-traumatic stress disorder.
That’s why I read newspapers. It’s why you should too.