December 18, 2002

Editor’s note: During a recent conference on coaching writers, Poynter asked Cheryl Carpenter, deputy managing editor at The Charlotte Observer, to speak about her husband, Foster Davis. Davis, a journalist and independent writing coach, died of cancer in May 2001 at age 61. Davis and Poynter Dean Karen Dunlap wrote a book together called The Effective Editor.

By Cheryl Carpenter
Special to

Cheryl Carpenter and Foster Davis

Foster had three jobs in his life that he deemed transformational. He loved his first job as a young reporter for the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Miss., where he found himself in the middle of the civil rights movement, working for the brave and storied Hodding Carter.

A couple jobs later he was a CBS correspondent covering the Vietnam War. He learned then, as we are painfully learning now in Afghanistan, how treacherous it can be for journalists to do their jobs in a war zone.

And, then, later in life, he became a writing coach, first for The Charlotte Observer for several years. Then, again, in 1995, he became an independent writing coach and started that career with one year in South Africa. Teaching journalists in a miraculous newborn democracy changed how Foster felt about journalism. It inspired him, which is why the Foster S. Davis Fellowships for Africa exist at Poynter today.

I’m an expert on Foster. We worked together in Charlotte, taught together in South Africa and slept together, well, all over the world. Still, I felt that there was a lot left to know about this wonderful man. When we would disagree about something, he sometimes would disarm me by saying: “Hey, look, I’m an evolving creature, a work in progress.” I would always fall for it.

I thought about how he’d coach me in this little talk today. First, he would say, keep it short, Cheryl. Then, he would have me illustrate what I’m talking about with a few anecdotes. And please portray me with a sense of humor, he would plead. And because this talk is short, keep it to three points. He liked threes, thought there was some literary magic to them. Here’s one he used: Journalists got into this business for one of three reasons 1) messianic zeal; 2) they love to read; 3) they are bored with everything else. Foster was in this business for all three of those reasons.

I think you’ll hear echoes in this speech of his journalism coaching heroes: Karen Dunlap, Roy Clark, Don Fry, Don Murray, Jack Hart and Bill Blundell. He borrowed from them heavily, as we all should.

Foster, the coach, lived by several themes. Here are three I’ve chosen to talk to you about today: 1) Pretend you’re working yourself out of a job. 2) The answer to most adult questions is: It depends. 3) This is hard work; find patience for mastery.

Number One: Pretend you’re working yourself out of a job.

He wrote once: “This means you must think constantly of showing people how to do something, rather than doing it yourself. Your primary job is to direct other people toward superior performance.” He would say: Do you have the vocabulary to do this? Do you have the knowledge of story forms? Do you have enough energy to “never send a reporter away empty-handed. If asked, ‘Got a minute?’ then have one. You can get a lot done in 120 seconds. Many editors make themselves unapproachable, by exuding stress and busy-ness. You can’t teach people if they won’t come near you. Make the effort, always.”

Jack Horan, a reporter for 34 years at The Observer, retired last month. Foster had worked with Jack for years as Jack covered nuclear power and the environment. Jack reinvented himself several times too, later covering the outdoors. He was the kind of professional reporter who still twitched with excitement about a story even in his last week of work. Foster loved Jack, and littered his personnel file with notes that I found when I wrote Jack’s retirement note.

Jack told me this story about Foster: He and Foster were headed out for Jack’s annual evaluation. Over lunch, they both got excited and animated about some story ideas. They talked about everything but the evaluation. When they pulled into the parking deck back at The Observer, Foster slapped his head and said, “Jack, we forgot to talk about this,” waving a couple of typewritten pages. So they got out of Jack’s truck, put the evaluation on the hood, and talked about it a little on the parking deck. Jack signed it, and then they resumed their discussion of stories they should tell and places they should go. Twenty minutes later, an incredulous reporter walks into the newsroom with Jack’s evaluation in his hand. He’d found it on the hood of a truck in the parking lot. Jack loved that story; he thought it conveyed that Foster got excited about the right things. And yes, it also conveys a tad of absentminded-ness that made Foster a little eccentric.

Number Two: The answer to most adult questions is: It depends.

“Judgment above all,” Foster would say. “Reporting, writing and editing require judgment based on principles, not rules. Which is why the answer to most adult questions is: It depends. Rules are funny creatures. They are often of uncertain parentage, but they have great vitality. They wiggle their way into an organization and provide answers at the astronomical cost of suspended judgment. Sometimes a rule’s parent is an exasperated boss trying to fix something. Very often nobody knows where a rule has come from. And often we try to obey rules that don’t exist. As we do, we help to enforce a vaporous orthodoxy in which anything not utterly predictable is scary. Judgment is an informed opinion reached by discerning the details and scope of a situation, comparing and contrasting and then coming to a conclusion. It does not come quickly and it is a hallmark of an accomplished journalist.”

Foster would also say that judgment can make the newspaper safe for genius. I think he borrowed that line from Doug Clifton, whom he admired.

When I was an assistant state editor, and worked for Foster, he said more than once to me that I must use my judgment on the length of stories. As I struggled to sell to Page 1 the reporters’ stories about water plants, sewers, zoning and road-building, he would say to me: “Cheryl, don’t try to make me fall in love with every story. Being clear and useful is honorable work. And remember the reader’s prayer when you’re editing these stories….If it must be dull, please God, let it be short.”

Jim Walser, now the recruiter at The Observer, but also a gifted reporter and writer, told me this story about how Foster handled a loonnggg story. Walser wrote: “Foster was to be the early editor on a big Sunday, 20-page, tornado section that we did in March 1984. Frye Gaillard and I had worked all Friday night and into Saturday morning, taking feeds from 30 reporters out on the road covering a Thursday tornado that killed 69 people and injured 1,300. It was about 6 a.m. when Foster came bounding into the office with doughnuts and coffee. He loved mornings. He was supposed to give the 300-inch piece (written in one night) the first read. You can imagine what it looked like. For one thing, it was only about 200 inches and we were spent. Frye and I were pretty anxious.

“I don’t remember Foster’s first words exactly, but even his body and facial language told us we were OK as he read through our draft. Then he said something like, ‘This is good stuff.’ He told us not to be concerned about the length, that it could be worked out. I remember feeling a burst of energy. We went back to work for a couple of hours to finish the writing. The way Foster handled that first encounter taught me a lot. He edited the reporters — the people, not the story.”

That 300-inch narrative that Jim and Frye produced in 1984 would stand today as great work.

Number Three: This is hard work that you’re doing. Be patient with mastering it.

Foster once wrote: “It will be easier if you just accept as a given that most of how good you become is going to be up to you.”

Big things are made up of little things, he would say. Learning how to omit needless words, how to structure a story and how to edit yourself — all of these are steps to mastering your craft. There is a method to improvement, he would say. Feel reassured that there is a path to follow. It is not magical; it is practice and dedication. And your development can continue at the smallest of newspapers — because — it is up to you.

Once, when I was stumped on a story, struggling to find the words to help a reporter revise a long, complicated piece, I went to Foster, frustrated. His first words to me: “Look, this is hard work you’re doing here. Don’t think it comes so easy to the rest of us. We all had to learn it.” I heard him say that over and over to frustrated writers. “This is hard work we do. Don’t think you should know all the answers.”

Foster’s daughter, Tracy, who is now a reporter at The Ann Arbor News, said she hid her first newspaper stories from her father like she hid her cigarettes in high school. Then, one day, he gently asked her if she wanted feedback. When they began to talk about her stories, she said, “His delivery was kind. He gave me compliments along with things like, ‘You might think about shortening your sentences a little.’ I was writing 40-word-long sentences peppered with adjectives. We went through a couple of stories and he showed me how to pare my prose. Use sparse, clear writing, he said. There were no lectures from him, no litany of all that I was doing wrong — just a few simple directions. After my sentences were honed, he would move on to the next step. His long, slow process — rather than overwhelming, lengthy critiques — helped his advice stick with me.”

Foster would encourage all of you to be students forever. He would want you to know that he didn’t think he became an accomplished writing coach until sometime in his late 40s, after he’d been working at this for decades. And remember, even today he would say, “I’m a work in progress. Still evolving.”

One last story about Foster…. Frank Barrows, managing editor at The Observer, told me that he remembers this as one of Foster’s finer moments. A team-building exercise at a department-head retreat required that everyone hear what their colleagues thought of them, both good and bad. These exercises made for tense and dreaded moments. It was Foster’s turn in the fishbowl. He sat in the center of a circle of colleagues. One of the editors started by extravagantly complimenting him for his elegant vocabulary and dexterity with the language. She said, ‘Foster you are always so eloquent in your thoughts about leadership and journalism. It’s as though you always know just the right thing to say.’ Foster paused a moment, looking introspective, then said, “Well, you know, what the fuck.”

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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