A Roy Peter Clark Q&A: Reporting and writing on Apollo 11

July 18, 2019

After a telephone interview, Roy Peter Clark submitted some questions for Poynter to Mark Bloom about his recollections of reporting and writing the story of Apollo 11 and the first moon landing in 1969. Questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity and context.

Roy Peter Clark: Mark, you got to cover one of the biggest stories of the 20th century for one of the world’s largest newspapers. How do you prepare yourself for such a story? How do you get ready?

Mark Bloom: I did not walk into the story cold. My preparation was the sum product of six years as a deskman and reporter for two wire services (Canadian Press and Reuters) where I handled thousands of stories, big and small, often on deadline, under the supervision of a succession of excellent editors. In short, I was well-trained and was brought along slowly. By the time I got to the Daily News at age 26, I could craft a story. I still had much to learn, but as a reporter I knew what I was doing. In particular, I had a good grasp on the space program from my Reuters experience covering the two-man Gemini missions. So when the Apollo 1 fire took place a few weeks after I joined the paper, I was ready to roll. I was in the right place at the right time.

Clark: You wrote different lead for different editions of the paper. Talk about your first lead and how you got there. How far ahead of time were you rehearsing what you would write?

Bloom: In 1969, the Daily News had a circulation of more than 2 million a day and 3 million on Sunday. So we had time to stop the press run and re-plate, as we called it, and still print hundreds of thousands of papers with updates on stories. For Apollo 11, the first edition — the one star, as we called it — had a deadline of about 5:30 p.m.

I had long planned a simple, unadorned lead of: “HOUSTON, July 19 — Man landed on the moon today.” And that’s the way it ran. I had assumed it would be good for the full press run because the astronauts were not scheduled to walk till the following day. But they were so excited that they advanced their “small step for a man” by several hours, just in time for the three-star edition. So “landed” became “landed and walked.” The epochal became even more so. (Got to roll with the punches.) A similar event occurred on Apollo 13 when a “routine” cruise to the moon became a crisis between the one-star and three-star editions. Parenthetically, my colleague across town at the New York Times, John Noble Wilford, wrote for his Apollo 11 first edition: “Men landed on the moon today.” Men, not Man. He always claimed his was more accurate. I rejoined that mine was more cosmic.

Clark: As I was reading your story, it struck me that it must have been written like a big game story in sports. You had to write not knowing what the outcome would be. Were you thinking about alternative leads, say if the mission had not been successful?

Bloom: I tended to think sports in my style. For instance, I never wrote about Captain Walter M. Schirra Jr. of the Navy. For me, it was Wally Schirra. As to not knowing the outcome, news is news. You write what happens, as in (if necessary): “Two Americans died on the moon today when their four-legged landing craft sank into lunar dust. ‘Oh, no!’ were the last words heard from Apollo 11 astronauts.” Unlike the wire services, I had time to think of alternative leads.

Clark: When you write a story as big as this one, do you work from any kind of plan? In our phone call, you described a process in which you produce A matter, then B matter. Can you describe how that works?

Bloom: It was standard practice 50 years ago, when newspapers used slow, clunky Linotype machines to set hot lead into type, to file early copy that would stand up no matter what happened later. It was called A matter. That day I think I filed B matter, too. Typically, the B matter would begin: “The astronauts awoke early and had dried ham and eggs for breakfast. ‘Good morning, Houston,’ called Armstrong. Then the B matter would be topped with A matter accounts of the day’s activities. Finally, the A matter would be topped with the climactic event: the lead. To facilitate our efforts, NASA provided running transcripts of the air-to-ground communication and the press briefings.

Clark: You were working with “old school” technology — as were the astronauts, compared to my iPhone. As you were reporting from Houston, can you describe how you were writing and transmitting your work back to New York?

Bloom: I wrote on an Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter. I wrote on yellow Western Union copy paper, marked NPR Collect, and filed by teletype. The A and B matter was filed at leisure, full page by full page. As deadline approached, I would be write two graphs, maybe three, and shout: “Western!” Western Union was about 20 feet from my desk. A Western Union man would run, scurry and grab my copy. For emergencies, or for queries from New York, I had a black AT&T rotary-dial phone on my desk at the Manned Spacecraft Center.

Clark: You used the word “interp” in our phone call — short for those sections of your story that were interpretative. You disagreed with your editor Mike O’Neill on the significance of the moon landing. Can you describe how you move in a story from the grounded details — purple moon rocks — to higher meaning?

Bloom: The “interp” was a sidebar, short for interpretive. What did it all mean? Michael O’Neill, my editor, saw it as an accomplishment that took mankind away from the shackles of the earth. I thought that was nonsense. I viewed it as an astonishing engineering achievement. So I discussed the differing viewpoints.

Clark: The use of dialogue is so common in fiction, but so unusual in most news stories. You managed to capture and use some of the most amazing dialogue in human history: between the first two men on the moon’s surface. Can you share how you did that?

Bloom: If I recall, the desk in New York took the dialogue from the AP.

Clark: You came up through the wire services, so you learned how to write fast. Can you share three secrets on how to write fast and well?

Bloom: As the Brits say, keep calm and carry on. I made it a point to take a deep breath and try to think. Waste a few seconds, but get it right and try to be lively. Don’t panic.

Clark: We are looking back on a story you wrote 50 years ago. A big story. But you said something to me about your view of service to the reader that I found inspirational. You said “I’ve always believed that the most important story is the one you are working on now. Do the best you can.”

Bloom: I tried to remember that I was the fortunate surrogate for my readers, millions of them.

Read the rest of our Apollo 11 moon landing coverage here