If you don’t read this news story, you’ll receive an F. A big red F.
Read the Los Angeles Times story by Maria La Ganga, and you’ll understand why. Read it now, before you finish this item.
I mean it. Now. Read it now. Click on the link above. Take your time and savor it. Then come back and finish this post, and I’ll tell you more.
* * *
OK, you’re back. You read about Jim Hayes. Now you know about the big red F.
That scary anecdote reveals just one side of him. It might take me the rest of the semester to share with you more of his sides, along with his advice and care and craftsmanship. That’s the plan, anyway. I try every day, whether you realize it or not.
I was one of the fortunate young journalists Jim Hayes influenced. He was never my professor — I went to a different school — but he was always a mentor. He taught at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and also worked part-time at the town’s daily newspaper, the Telegram-Tribune. That’s where he did his best to turn me into a professional.
It was an afternoon paper back then. He usually arrived around 5 a.m. and edited the stories that we had submitted the evening before. At sunrise, he drove to campus, where he worked his professorial magic. At 4 or 5 p.m., he often returned to the paper to handle more editing and check on the pieces he’d find in the morning.
He worked hard to support his family and to help us improve. Sometimes he’d be worn out. He could be a crank. Sometimes he deserved to be cranky after reading a piece not ready for our readers. On the late afternoons when he felt like coaching, I’d hand him a story typed on my old Underwood manual. He would inspect it, possibly mumbling the lines to himself. The best possible outcome was if he cackled at some passage, but he also frowned a lot. Then he would call me over.
Sitting there as he examined the story was like waiting for a roller-coaster to lurch into motion. It might be fun.
I learned tons by absorbing his lessons as he read my stories aloud, narrating their strengths and weaknesses, chiding me for poor phrasing or for missing the significance of, say, a rezoning proposal. Why wasn’t that in the lede? He loved to point out missed opportunities, even the most subtle of literary craft. In a story about hiking, he might suggest, why not play with the rhythm of footsteps along a trail?
He admired logic and clarity. A good news story, he told me many times, should read like a chain-link fence, each paragraph attached to those before and after. This week, I’ve urged some of you to stop backing into your ledes, to instead take your readers fearlessly on a sharp, clear path. What did I say? Go for the jugular!
That was Jim’s line.
As the red slash was his penalty, the public accolade was his reward. Once he challenged me to add fresh description, handing back a dull story about a city sign ordinance. The next afternoon, when he came upon my revised story with a new depiction of a huge Safeway sign as a ‘landlubber’s lighthouse,’ he yelled with delight. He repeated the phrase for everyone in the newsroom to hear. I cringe at the sound of that phrase now. Corny. But guess what? I remember it, too. It was a victory he engineered and celebrated. It was fun.
Another time a rather dour local activist left a note for our executive editor, asking him to fire me. This followed a satirical story I had written about a lifeless session at city hall to discuss the general plan, a breathtakingly important document that no one save a dozen people ever bothered to understand. I was so bored by the marathon tedium of the meeting that I referred to the event as a ‘general plan party’ that had drawn the same predictable guests who had shared the same idle chat, talking but not listening.
If you don’t fire him, read the handwritten note, at least remove that shallow reporter from the beat. The editor flashed the note to me. What did I think? Had I been too flippant? Yeah, I’d been real flippant. For a purpose. Just then Jim approached, defending me and blasting the note-writer as one of those humorless citizens who take themselves “a little too damned seriously.” The editor nodded and walked away.
* * *
He chewed on us, inspired us, coached us — and never forgot us. He hasn’t forgotten quite yet.
After two years at that paper, I moved on (and slightly up). But the great Jim Hayes never ceased to encourage. When I became a columnist, he shot me ideas and critiques. When I leaned toward becoming a college professor, he promised it was exactly my calling. He stayed in touch throughout my career — right up to these past few months. I could give you a tour of my Facebook timeline to show you the scores of times the first name to like one of my posts was Jim Hayes. I felt special every time.
Here is a friendly ending to a note from him that never, until now, made me cry (twice). You can catch his sparkle:
Give Kevin and Misako my very best and reserve a manly abrazo for yourself, compadre. I miss you and the conversations I found so stimulating. But I’ve nattered past the point of good manners. Adios, Jim
You needed to read the LA Times story to learn of the source of inspiration for much of your instruction, no matter how imperfectly it is passed along to you in McEwen Hall, room 108. We’ve discussed newsworthiness. So why did the Times publish that piece? Was it prominence, proximity, impact? Yes, and conflict — our inner conflict to watch him fade. Jim the writing coach greased the skills of many of the best reporters and editors at the Times, and more all over the West.
He is a mentor, a model and a master who has touched thousands of journalists and, thanks to him, millions of readers. In our neat but narrow thread in COM 310, I’m proud to trace the influence from him to me. And now it extends to you.
We’re all attached like a chain-link fence.