Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Wising up on dumb questions

It’s not just learning that an English newsroom once again pulses to the rat-a-tat of typewriters that has dispatched me down memory lane. It’s also forty years this month since I started working as a journalist, a wet-behind-the-ears teenager who on my first morning at the office mistook Frank, the aging messenger, for the editor.

Well, he was wearing a three-piece suit. Even then, it struck me as a tad overdressed for walking down to the bus station to collect the packets of page proofs sent from the home office.

This was back before the days of faxes and computers, of course, when we banged out copy on big, old, sit-up-and-beg manual typewriters. Strange critters that they were, we would them push over onto their backs when we were not using them, like some rare breed of Underwood Turtles. That gave us enough room to use the rest of the desk.

Most desks had what from a distance looked like a fashionable dark trim round the top. In reality, the stripe marked where cigarettes had dangled over the edge to burn for just too long. Everyone smoked, secondhand at least: a permanent semi-haze hung over the small newsroom. The cloudy air was occasionally stirred by the sudden swinging of the door when the editor barged in from his adjoining office, shouting about something.

This was when the air would go from gray to blue; profanity was as commonplace as Pall Malls. It was all very unPC. Journalism was still viewed more as a trade or a craft than a profession, per se; if not quite blue-collar then at least blue-cuffed. You could hope to make a living, but you wouldn’t think it would be a way to make a fortune.

As one of the last of the young apprenticeship-model entrants to journalism, I look back on those early days with a mixture of embarrassment and gratitude. People the editor sent me to interview were kind to the naive newbie (and gracious when I called them back later to find out something else I should have asked), and my older colleagues were patient and encouraging.

Truth is, you can learn the basics of journalism pretty quickly: this isn’t rocket science. But it’s kind of like driving a car—once you understand the mechanics it’s a question of practice, practice, practice. There’s a difference between passing your test and achieving good driver status. It’s the miles you accumulate in between.

Sometimes I still feel like that awkward kid, but I hope I have learned a few things along the way. For instance, not to pretend I know or understand something when I am interviewing someone if I don’t. It’s a simple choice: risk having them think I am foolish when I ask them to explain, or risk having a whole bunch more people think I am foolish when they read what I have written and it’s clear I don’t understand.

Simply, there are no dumb questions if you don’t know something—even the much-mocked “How do you feel?” to people caught up in tragedy. So you want me to assume I know what they’re feeling? We all know what that does, right? However, while I have learned that there no dumb questions, I have also discovered that there are smarter ways to ask something.

As a third-generation journalist, the printer’s ink must run deep in the blood. Four decades and countless articles on, I still get a buzz from the clatter of the keys.

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