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A good reporters must be all in

By Debbie Leffler • Aug 8, 2018 at 12:00 PM

There’s a debate in the newspaper world — how important is a degree in journalism?

Some say it is very important — journalism is a profession, and it is a great advantage to study the ethics, methods and nuts and bolts of this profession before being hired. One can earn a graduate degree in journalism from prestigious universities including Kent State, Ohio State, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, University of Missouri and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

Others say that journalism is a trade, or a craft, and that it is best learned in the field, by doing. That is how I learned. And I learned from one of the best.

My mentor — the person who taught me almost everything I know about newspapering — was Richard D. Hendrickson. He died July 29 in Los Angeles at the age of 77. I read from his obituary that he went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and he became a college journalism professor. But I knew that he fell in love with journalism long before earning those degrees when he was in the Navy.

At the time I met him, he was the bureau chief of the Lorain Journal’s Norwalk bureau He lived in rural New London. I had a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy, so I had the grammar thing down. But being a reporter? I knew nothing. I was hired as the Norwalk bureau’s reporter.

Hendrickson would sit by my side as we attended city council and school board meetings. He taught me his system of taking notes at the meeting — numbering each item and placing a question mark next to the ones that I needed to ask questions about later. He taught me to always be willing to ask those questions after the meeting.

When it came time to write the story, he taught me to read over my notes and place what happened in order of importance. That was the order I would use in my story — never just chronological. Some items would be worth further investigation and an entire story of their own; others, even if they took up a lot of time at the meeting, might not be newsworthy at all. That’s where my judgment came in.

I remember one time I was unable to attend a city council meeting. He insisted that I call the safety-service director the next day to find out what happened. When I called that person, he told me he didn’t have time to tell me what happened at the meeting. When I reported this back to Hendrickson, I still remember how angrily he picked up the phone, called that safety-service director and told him it was his job to talk to me, a member of the press, so that the public would know what happened at the meeting.

He was like that — he saw informing the public as an almost religious pursuit and being a reporter as an obligation to be the eyes and ears of the public. Do whatever it takes to get that information. To be fair. To get both sides. No excuses.

As the one bureau reporter, I covered everything, from schools to government to courts and crime. Hendrickson even made me cover a basketball game, even though I know nothing about sports  because he wanted me to be well-rounded.

I saw Hendrickson about a year ago at an event in Norwalk. We exchanged email addresses. I sent him a link to a copy of the Trucker Imprint; he sent me links to some of the material he used in teaching college journalism. There was one lesson in particular I looked at. It was called “Qualities of a Journalist.” And quality No. 1 on his list was: “Possess energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, initiative and self-discipline.” He taught me that, too, and that’s exactly what I teach my NHS journalism students, only I didn’t realize that’s where I’d learned it. I tell my students that I can teach them how to improve their writing, but I can’t teach them how to be curious. If you’re not curious, if you don’t have questions to ask, you can’t be a good reporter.

Thank you, Dick Hendrickson, and may you rest in peace.

Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]

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