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Jun 2002 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

Black and White and
Nowhere Read

By Eddie Roth

Daily print journalism strives for the language of action. Page-one headlines — even in the demure New York Times — report a "push" or a "fight" or a "scramble." Exploits as yet unrealized still can be actively told in terms of what's "expected" or "urged" or what has been "stalled."

Eddie Roth Reporters, writers and editors work hard to animate their reports. They quarry for words that both "get it right" factually and capture the pulse artfully — all in hopes of diverting, holding and informing the reader.

But experienced journalists are as hesitant to describe their work's impact as they are confident of their news judgments. Power to perceive and describe the news can be confirmed over time, but there's little way of knowing how reports are received.

Journalism reviews attempt such introspection, but are seldom concrete. Fuzzy words seem to prevail. Things like whether reports "connect" with readers.

In short, no convincing measurement has been devised for quantifying this quality. And for all the hubris attributed to journalists, humility more often prevails, particularly once a report has been published.

It's like the trial lawyer's demeanor: even the cockiest in the trade can't tell you how they've done at summation's end, and are nervous as a cat when waiting on the jury.

But in a writing career distinguished only by its brevity, I've experienced that elusive certainty — once. I've been party to that most rare of journalistic occurrences, and it happened at the dawn of my newfound vocation — predawn, really.

Something I wrote has achieved superlative status. I knew it within hours of publication and, what's more, my achievement is unmatched in the institutional annals of the newspaper in which it appeared. Arguably, it will never be surpassed.

I wrote the least-read editorial ever published by the Dayton Daily News.

Dayton is a great newspaper town in a great newspaper state.

No fewer than eight metropolitan newspapers hit Ohio's streets each day. In addition to Dayton's Daily News, there's the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Akron Beacon-Journal, the Toledo Blade, the Cincinnati Enquirer (and Post), the Columbus Dispatch and the Youngstown Vindicator.

I first found my way to the Daily News while idling in my St. Louis law office about a year ago. I typed the words "editorial writer" into the Yahoo search engine, and up came the site for the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

The site had a jobs board, on which appeared a position on the Daily News' editorial board. Some guys, when they turn 43, are thinking new sports car. Suddenly, I'm thinking new career.

The paper is part of the Cox chain, and was Ohio governor and Democratic presidential nominee James Cox's first paper, now among many that include the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Austin American-Statesman.

Dayton, like St. Louis, is a proud, old, midwestern river city. Its scale is 1:2 in all conventional categories when compared to the Mound City, except aviation pioneers, where the ratio is reversed — Dayton has two Wright Brothers to St. Louis' one Lindbergh.

I put in, and couldn't have been more surprised when my application attracted some interest. Back-and-forth e-mails with the editorial page editor over the next several weeks led to an invitation to come to Dayton for a try out.

Pre-planned summer vacations delayed the visit until after Labor Day.

It was a two-day program; the first devoted to writing an editorial in real time. I had a day to pick a topic, run it down and write it up — a 500-word test.

As luck would have it, an impending Dayton police chief selection was in the news, that day, and that was something about which I had some ideas.

I turned in a serviceable piece by mid-afternoon. With some light editing, it was soon slotted to lead on the next day's opinion page.

"Step up search for police chief" couldn't have generated any reader interest, though. Not after 9 a.m., in the September 11 edition of the Dayton Daily News, where it appeared.

By mid-morning the newsroom had mobilized in ways that didn't allow for handholding a novice. By noon I was heading home, driving through Indiana's ground-infinity, listening to NPR accounts from ground zero.

Over the days and weeks that followed, I saw what newspapers could do.

And I knew I was being offered a rare chance — to connect with readers.

In January 2002, Eddie Roth moved from St. Louis, where he practiced law, to Dayton, where he writes editorials for the Dayton Daily News.

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