We've come a long way from the old days of 'Yes, Virginia'By now, everyone who knows me knows my decision to major in journalism was because of Francis Church and Virginia O’Hanlon, and of course Merle Adams. Mrs. Adams taught Latin and journalism at Chamberlain High School. She guided the staff of the school newspaper, and she carried a briefcase that was nearly as big as she was.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
By now, everyone who knows me knows my decision to major in journalism was because of Francis Church and Virginia O’Hanlon, and of course Merle Adams.
Mrs. Adams taught Latin and journalism at Chamberlain High School. She guided the staff of the school newspaper, and she carried a briefcase that was nearly as big as she was. At CHS, we called her “Granny” behind her back. We didn’t think she knew. Years later, I realized, of course, she knew. There’s not a chance in the world that Mrs. Adams didn’t know that was going on. I think she might have kind of liked the nickname, as long as we were respectful in her classes and industrious in her newspaper office, which, for the most part, we were.
Mrs. Adams turned me to journalism by introducing me to Church, a 19th century editor of the New York Sun, and to Virginia, an 8-year-old girl who wanted to believe in Santa Claus in spite of the claims by her little friends that no such creature existed. The first time I heard the story of the young girl’s letter to the editor and of the old newsman’s editorial reply was when Mrs. Adams read it shortly before Christmas my freshman year in journalism class.
I don’t know what the other kids in the class thought about the story. I was stunned by the simple question and the artful, soaring response. I was nearly 15 at the time, and that isn’t a good time in a young man’s life to be stunned by a piece of writing. I couldn’t let on that the thing had affected me, so I didn’t talk about it. Inside, though, I was imagining what it must be like to have written something like the Church piece, something so powerful that it’s remembered and re-read decades later.
Anyway, that’s pretty much why I decided to stick with journalism as a college major. I got into Mrs. Adams’ journalism class because it fit a free period in my schedule and because Ron Ballou said if we both took the course, we could be sports editors for the paper. He thought that would be a lark. It was, too, but working on the paper also reinforced my belief that there could be no finer way to make a living than as a newspaper reporter.
I make it a practice to read the Virginia question and answer a couple of times each Christmas season. It reminds me of how powerful a few carefully chosen words can be. When I read the piece just the other day, I was struck by the simplicity of the writing and by how it contrasts with the complexity of communication these days.
Virginia addressed her Santa Claus question to Editor Church in the first place because, as she tells him, “Poppa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ ”
Would that it were as simple these days, huh?
I can recall a time when a lot of people believed that if something was in a newspaper, it had to be true. In fact, for most of my career as a news reporter, I relied on hearing, memory, a knack for recalling precise quotes and the accuracy of notes taken in a semi-readable and self-taught shorthand. For the most part, for most of my career, that worked. If the subject of a story contacted me to question a quote, I’d read from my notebook or show the notes, and most of the time the source would say, “I really said that, huh?”
Late in my career I started carrying a voice recorder and using it in all my scheduled interviews. Frequently, when I got back to the computer, I’d transcribe the notes before I wrote the main story. Part of my decision to use a recorder was because my hearing was getting iffy, but part of it was because more people were questioning the accuracy of news reports — any news reports.
That isn’t a bad thing. Reporters shouldn’t fear having notes or stories questioned. It’s just that it’s a long way from “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Terry Woster’s column appears Saturdays and Wednesdays in The Daily Republic.