Veteran Newsman Passes on Craft to New Generation

June 25, 2009 — C. Brian Kelly is old school, having started in newspapers in the era of manual typewriters and hot lead presses.

Now he teaches news writing to a new generation at the University of Virginia, in an era when traditional newspapers are shrinking – or disappearing – and the Internet seems to be the news outlet of choice.

"There are blogs and twitters, but there is still a need for good, clear, succinct writing," Kelly said. "There are opportunities beyond newspapers. Some students want to be television news anchors, and there are plenty of opportunities in public relations."

Kelly focuses on hard news stories, features and editorials for the class, which is considered an intermediate-level writing course. His topics include obituaries, speech stories and legislature and political stories. He teaches students to write straight news stories, saying there is much of that on the Internet. However, most blogs, he said, are closer to editorials.

"The basic 'who?,' 'what?,' 'where?,' 'when?,' 'how?' and 'why?,'" he said. "I teach them to write a lede" – the opening part of the story that is intended to captivate the reader – "because the lede is everything."

Kelly has taught news writing since 1981 and has seen a mix of students, including senior citizens, foreign students who want to hone their English writing skills, athletes and high school students. Few are looking for newspaper jobs.

"After Watergate, there was a big focus on journalism and the students wanted to bring down a president or save the world," he said. "Now there is more interest in writing careers – more mainstream interest, or maybe they just need a writing credit."

He assigns about 15 to 18 writing assignments during the course, including in-class assignments the students must complete on a deadline, to teach them how to write under pressure. He cites examples of reporters who have received Pulitzer Prizes for on-deadline reporting. Sanche de Gramont, of the New York Herald Tribune, received a Pulitzer in 1961 for an obituary of a Metropolitan Opera singer who died on stage. He also tells students about Relman Morin of Associated Press, who received a Pulitzer in 1958 for his eyewitness report of mob violence during the integration crisis at the Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

"He was dictating the story over a phone in a phone booth and the mob was rocking the booth back and forth," he said.

The course can be a challenge because many students don't read newspapers.

"A lot of them have not been exposed to papers," said Kelly, who deplores the decline of newspapers, noting there were 14 daily papers in New York City while he was growing up.

"But it's a fact that the industry is collapsing and facts are facts," he said.

Kelly presents his students with articles from the Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, most from the past few years. And sometimes he arranges for reporters to visit the class.

Kelly became interested in newspapers during World War II. An uncle was fighting with the U.S. Army in China; young Kelly wanted to track the war, and newspapers were the best way.

He landed his first newspaper job in 1958, on the Richmond Times-Dispatch copy desk. He moved to the Harrisonburg Daily News Record, then to the Richmond News Leader. He finished his newspaper career at the Washington Star, where he stayed for 16 years, leaving the paper a few years before it folded in 1981.

Stepping away from daily journalism, he founded Military History magazine in 1984, a publication he edited for 11 years. He also edited World War II, another history magazine. From there he wrote a series of history books, the first being "The Best Little Stories from World War II," short narratives, each self-contained, from the war

"I miss newspapering," he said. "But I get my kicks from teaching class and seeing how the students handle different stories."

— By Matt Kelly