July 14, 2022

Francis X. Clines arrived at The New York Times in 1958, one year before the death of that most brilliant Times writer Meyer Berger. It was the greatest replenishment of talent the Big Apple had seen since Mickey Mantle replaced Joe DiMaggio in centerfield for the New York Yankees.

Now Clines has died, leaving behind a legacy of sharp and graceful writing, arguably unmatched in its range, energy and creativity.

In my formative years as a newspaper writing coach, it was the work of Frank Clines that revealed to me the true potential of newspaper writing. He came to Poynter in the 1980s for one of our earliest writing seminars, sharing wisdom that still echoes in my brain: “I knew that if I could just get out of the office, I could come back with a story.” And, “Reporters have to tell the morbid truth, no apologies for that.”

In 1988, Clines won the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award for deadline writing. At the time, he was covering the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, a topic of special interest to an Irish-American Catholic. He wrote this lead out of Belfast on March 16, 1988:

Three people were killed and dozens wounded today as an assailant threw grenades into a screaming crowd at a funeral and then fled across the graveyard from enraged mourners.

Or this one three days later:

There was more macabre violence at an Irish Republican Army funeral today as two armed British soldiers in civilian clothes drove their car into a crowd of panicked mourners and were seized, beaten, and finally shot to death.

Their bloody bodies were discovered a short while later in a garbage patch.

Both of those stories were reprinted in an annual volume of ASNE prizewinners, under the title “Best Newspaper Writing.” That volume was edited by Poynter writing teacher Don Fry (who died late last year). Fry wrote appreciations of Clines’ stories, and interviewed him at length about his craft and his sense of mission and purpose.

One of the stories they discussed also came out of Belfast with the headline: “In Belfast, Death, Too, Is Diminished by Death.”

Here were the lead paragraphs, in which Clines takes two things that should not belong together and juxtaposes them, creating a narrative tension that carries through the story:

Beyond the coffin, out in the churchyard, red-haired Kathleen Quinn was full of fun and flirting shamelessly for all her eight years of life. “’Mister, I’m to be on the TV tonight,” she told a stranger, squinting up happy and prim. Kathleen had taken her brother’s bike and skinned her knee bloody, all while people were praying goodbye inside the church to another rebel body in another coffin.

Soon the cameras were watching the coffin being carried out from the windowless fortress of a church, down the curl of the street in the simple hamlet, and on to the ever-filling graveyard patch devoted to republican rebels.

As it turned out, the television ignored Kathleen and missed a classic Irish truth, a sight for sore eyes. She climbed back on the bike and headed off in a blur, oblivious of a piece of nearby graffiti that seemed about all of life’s withering dangers: “I wonder each night what the monster will do to me tomorrow.”

The conversation between Fry and Clines extends for 23 book pages. The best I can do here is to mine it for gold coins. Here they are:

On where he learned to tell stories

I read a lot when I was a very young kid, things that were forbidden, like Mickey Spillane. Those stories heightened things. There was reality, and then there was a story about the reality. I’ve always liked that.

On who taught him to be a good reporter

An editor … named Sheldon Binn was on the city desk for all my years in the city, and he was just a very smart, very gentle, very curious man. You would report to him at the end of the day and that really focused what we were doing. You had to tell him a story.

He would say to you, “And then Rockefeller did what?” He would always stay on the level that I like. And he’d laugh or not, and say, “You know, that guy’s unbelievable,” just like in the street. By the time you wrote the story, you were reinforced in what was amusing or important. He was always human.

On what it was like to report as an eyewitness, including being 75 feet from a grenade thrown at a funeral

I was kinda watching from behind a tombstone. And I took some notes, and it was just a wild scene. Reporters always want to witness what they write, and when you do witness, then you know that there’s no way the story won’t be interesting. I was wondering whether they had buried bombs and whether the graveside would be nasty. Then I saw the crowd was chasing this guy who did all this, and by standing on top of a tombstone, I could watch as he ran down the hill. He wheeled on them, shot a few of them dead, and they finally caught him on this expressway, and the cops arrested him. Even then, after that, the funeral of the three IRA people resumed.

On writing and organizing a story

Everything grows out of the lead, and the only problem in this case was that so much happened. You want everything to be rooted there, and you want to leave yourself options to pop all over the place, just the way the story did. So naturally you have to get the number of people who were killed, but quickly get beyond that to his notion of people in a graveyard. Not a “cemetery”; you wanted “graveyard.” You start picking words right away: “coming in” and “throwing grenades” and “people panicking.” And that’s quite a circuit of emotion, I thought. So I got all that in the lead. And then once you have the lead to where you’re satisfied, then it’s making sure you hit enough of the different key (elements) quickly enough.

On using a story structure people at Poynter call an “hourglass,” where you tell the main news in the top few paragraphs but then pivot back to the beginning for a fuller chronological version

Sure, it’s perfectly natural. If you talk again with the real people who were at a scene, they begin all over again, and they have to keep telling it. It’s that compelling. The strategic reason is because you have more information to get in, and there is enough energy left in the story to retell it on a different level. So I just did that naturally. And it’s a long story, longer than we’re usually writing, so that naturally invites a retelling with other things in it, with more detail and more color. 

On using the detail: “The gunman ran out from under his tweed cap as he fled out onto the motorway.”

Every paragraph should have something like that in it, because you’re in this invaluable situation where you’re describing what you have seen. I love small sentences with just bing, bing, like that. It’s hard to premeditate them. But you’re grateful when they come along.

On how he chooses how many characters should be in a story

It’s a simple matter of space. If you’re not careful, you can let too many people into the story, who will more or less make the same point, and eat up the story, so that you haven’t told the story. It is, after all, a story first, and not a catalog of comments. I have to rerun that every time: don’t let a crowd into the story. I always feel guilty when I interview a lot of people and then don’t use many of them. But you’re interviewing them for your telling of the story and not for their telling of the story, unless they were in some unique position.

On what he means when he talks about writing “naturally”

You read, and you know what you like when you read and that rubs off. It’s a give and take, and you’re always self-adjusting. It’s a learning process, but it’s self-taught. I do a lot of revising. I cut a lot of words, and I tighten phrases, a lot of small stuff that’s important to me, that takes out sprawling writing. But I do it quickly as I go along. I don’t write once and then go back over it and over it again and again. I just know that there’s something in a paragraph I don’t like, and I’ll get back to it in a minute. I’ll look at it and say, “Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have done all of that.” I can take out this and that, and still save the one word that makes it okay. I do it quickly though. 

On thinking about the reader

You’re always imagining whether you’re getting in the way of the reader or not. So you picture yourself staying out of the reader’s way, but also conveying what you thought was the most interesting thing, particularly the most interesting feeling. You know when you have an honest reaction. That’s important to get into the story, so the trick is to find an oblique way of doing it. That, to me, is as important as some guy’s name. And that’s the fun of it. That’s the human part of it. That’s the thing that makes it a story. It’s one human being saying, “Look at this.” And that way you’re talking as an individual to another individual. 

Who was Francis X. Clines?

Not many New York Times obituaries read like hagiography — a saint’s life — but this one of Frank Clines comes close.

At the time of his Northern Ireland stories in 1988, Clines had already spent three decades at the Times. He grew up in Brooklyn and finished one year at St. Francis College in New York before a two-year stint in the Army. He talked his way into the Times as a copy boy in 1958. He became a reporter in training for six years, covering police and general assignment in all five boroughs. He even wrote copy for the marquee in Times Square, maybe one of the only places where a young reporter could see his own words up in lights.

He worked his way through the following beats: real estate, eastern Long Island, New York City welfare, and state legislature and the governor. From 1976 to 1979, he wrote the “About New York” column, which had been launched by Meyer Berger and given over the years only to some of the best writers at the paper.

He covered the presidential campaign of 1980, and was assigned to the Washington bureau from 1980 to 1986. He served as a correspondent in the Philippines before going to London for two years, where he reported the stories out of Northern Ireland. He then joined the Moscow bureau.

In the final years of his career at the paper, I got to see his byline less often, as he was writing for the editorial pages.

Clines died a year and a half after his colleague Jim Dwyer. The Times has lost two of its best-ever. Here’s the good news: New generations of reporters and writers are ready to carry the torch.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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