August 3, 2016

Donald Trump had this to say as part of his critique of The New York Times: “They don’t write good. They have people over there…they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.

As a reader of the Times for more than a half-century, I would say that there are days on which Mr. Trump’s review would be right on the mark. I can recall countless suitcase leads on the front page of the Times, where all the important info — and more! — gets stuffed into a single tedious paragraph.

When I began a hunt for good newspaper writing in 1979, I was less likely to find a gem in the Times than in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, or The Miami Herald. But the writing in the Times has gotten much better over four decades, a result of encouraging editors, a national movement to improve news writing and the beneficial effects — leading toward brevity — of the digital age.

That said, there have always been scribes at the Times who “write good” and some who “write great.”

As evidence, I want to present an all-time all-star team of six writers, drawn from the ranks of the world’s most important newspaper.

Meyer (Mike) Berger

By the time of his death in 1959, Mike Berger set a standard for excellence in newspaper writing that has often been challenged, but never surpassed. He could go short or long, fast or slow.

He helped invent the “About New York” column, panning for gold across the urban landscape. He won a Pulitzer in 1950 for his 4,000-word story on the mass killings by war veteran Howard Unruh in Camden, N.J., a compelling narrative reconstruction feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Another honored work was this 1947 piece on the first return of the war dead from Europe:

The first war dead from Europe came home yesterday. The harbor was steeped in Sabbath stillness as they came in on the morning tide in 6,248 coffins in the hold of the transport Joseph V. Connolly. One coffin, borne from the ship in a caisson, moved through the city’s streets to muffled drumbeats and slow cadenced marches, and 400,000 New Yorkers along the route and at a memorial service in Central Park paid it the tribute of reverence silence and unhidden tears.

No doubt, Mike Berger is the captain of this All-Star team.

Isabel Wilkerson

Now the author of important works on race and American culture, Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994, bringing to life the tough existence of a Chicago family struggling with violence and poverty:

It’s a gray winter’s morning, zero degrees outside, and school starts for everybody in less than half an hour. The children line up, all scarves and coats and legs. The boys bow their heads so their mother, late for class herself, can brush their hair one last time. There is a mad scramble for a lost mitten.

Then she sprays them. She shakes an aerosol can and sprays their coats, their heads, their tiny outstretched hands. She sprays them back and front to protect them as they go off to school, facing bullets and gang recruiters and a crazy, dangerous world. It is a special religious oil that smells like drugstore perfume, and the children shut their eyes tight as she sprays them long and furious so they will come back to her, alive and safe, at day’s end.

This kind of good writing comes from life directly observed. Looking for that telling detail? Where else will you find a can of bullet-proof oil?

Francis X. Clines

I had the pleasure of meeting Frank Clines at a Poynter seminar. He preached practical courage and trust in craft. If you can get out of the office, he said, you can find a story. And you should never be afraid of writing “the morbid truth.”

He inherited the mantle of Mike Berger, and in a long career at the Times wrote every kind of story on every kind of beat, including foreign correspondence. In 1988 he won an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award for deadline stories out of Northern Ireland:

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…

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.’

Good writers have an eye out for the startling contrast, the co-existence of that bright little girl and morbid truth of that graffiti.

Anna Quindlen

Now a successful novelist, Quindlen began her career as a beat writer and became one of the best columnists in the history of the Times (I much prefer her work to the snark-infested rip currents of a Maureen Dowd essay).

Quindlen helped revolutionize news writing by expanding a feminist perspective that the political could be personal, and vice-versa. Here’s a column from 1992 that speaks almost imagines the politics of today:

It was by way of being a national in-joke when George Bush began his State of the Union address by saying that he’d tried to persuade Barbara to deliver it. It has long been tacitly understood that Barbara Bush is both more likable and more liberal than her husband.

Funny thing. That’s how Marilyn Quayle is perceived, too — not as more likable and more liberal than Dan, but as somehow a superior product, smarter and infinitely more sure of her syntax. And the word on Hillary Clinton, who assumed her husband’s surname to advance his political career (and who, perhaps for the same reason, assumed his accent as well) is that she’s more intelligent and thoughtful than Bill, tougher and more ambitious.

In other words, behind every so-so candidate is a smart woman who makes him look good because he was savvy enough to marry her. The little (big) women.

Good writers have a way of sweeping aside the cultural veils that keep us from appreciating the honest truth.

Dan Barry

I have this fantasy that there is a torch-passing ceremony at the Times, not unlike the run-up to the Olympics. If that is the case, I can imagine a passing of the torch from Berger to Clines to Quindlen to Barry.

Like his colleagues, Barry has mastered both the short and long forms of the journalistic craft. He has written columns and series. He can write witty or straight. He has an eye for the off-beat, as when he noticed how, in a struggling rust-belt town, the population of feral cats was outpacing the citizenry. On a paper that is considered elitist, he can express an everyperson sensibility.

In 2002, Barry won an ASNE Distinguished Writing Award for this deadline piece on the first anniversary of 9/11:

They followed one another down, down into a seven-story hole in Lower Manhattan yesterday, thousands of them, filling with their sorrow the space where their husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, had died a year ago to the day. Some left cut flowers on the hard earth; some left photographs; some left whispered words.

There are so many good things happening in that lead, I could fill another column with them. Let me focus on the repetitive words “down, down.” For the ordinary scribe, one “down” would suffice; the repetition marks the descent into the ruins, a procession of mourners remembering the dead.

Margalit Fox

There’s a really smart guy at Harvard named Steven Pinker, who has written a new book titled “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Reading an early chapter, I was introduced to a Times writer whose work had escaped me. Margalit Fox writes obits for the paper, and Professor Pinker raves about her:

With deadpan wit, an affection for eccentricity and a deft use of the English lexicon,” he writes, “the linguist and journalist Margalit Fox has perfected the art of the obituary.

Pinker offers this example:

Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn…

“Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten, Mr Sendak’s books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children.

Occasionally eaten! What better praise can I offer than this: I hope she writes my obit.

So there you have it Mr. Trump, a half-dozen scribes of The New York Times who write good.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted a story by Isabel Wilkerson. The story reads “gray winter’s morning,” not “great winter morning.” Previously, this story also incorrectly referenced a word in Dan Barry’s story. It was “hole,” not “hold.”

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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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