Making My Mark

By J. F. McKenna

“Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.” – Randal Brown, The Cleveland News 

My first mark as a journalist started in 1967. Under the headline Don’t Deny Vaccine to Victims of Cancer, here’s what I wrote to the editors of The Cleveland Press:

There has recently been great controversy over the Rand vaccine. In my opinion no court should take the smallest flame of hope from a victim of cancer.

If put in a position like this, the chance of life with this drug is worth it.

With the words of victims of cancer who have taken the drug and improved, how can a court of law, in a land of democracy, stand in the way of people who deserve the right to live? As the words of these men and women ring loud in our ears, why do we stand and watch this happen? Life is a precious gift.

JOSEPH McKENNA, 13, St.  Ignatius School

On a dreary Saturday morning in 1967, a photographer called our house to set up a picture of me. My Mother told the shooter to give me two hours; then she sent me to the barbershop for a haircut. The fine fellow showed up in the early afternoon— with a request for a prop I could hold. In the years to follow, I heard similar requests from other photographers. But on that dreary Saturday long ago, the shooter was delighted to borrow my Aunt Ceal’s collection of rare coins.

My short article, with accompanying photograph, appeared in the following Wednesday edition of the afternoon newspaper.

The very next day, I was a very local celeb. Even the good Sisters of St. Joseph had seen it. Sister Michelene, in fact, wanted me to read it to the class; I declined. (I wasn’t being modest. I was simply not in love with my voice.) Joe Ahern took up the reading while I sat in my discomfort.

Nine years later—after several other opportunities to display my writing skills in public—I was working for the Universe Bulletin and its sister publications in Ohio. In that 13-year newsroom apprenticeship, I often heard Russ Faist sing out a journalistic that saw. He himself had learned it from Brown at the old Cleveland News, which died in 1960. The lesson, like all of Russ’ lessons and kindnesses, has stuck with me and has been passed on many times to other wordsmiths looking to sharpen their work.

Likewise, many of my so-called graduate classes came courtesy of Stan Modic, a magazine editor whose broad vision for business and industry never deterred him from his primary desire to get the best story possible for the reader. Underneath his outwardly gruff handling of staff writers and editors lay a genuine caring about the stories featured in print and about the folks he directed to fashion those stories. (SeeStan Modic: Guardian Angel and One Hell of a Journalist.)

All in all, I have had a great time practicing journalism over these many years—starting with that letter to the editor and continuing today with Cleveland Business Review, the brain child of my friend Doug Magill. Not only is Doug a smart, innovative businessman but he’s a good friend.

My 50th anniversary reunion of the old eighth-grade class is coming up soon. I’m in Pittsburgh and going to miss it. Hope this will serve as an RSVP.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their Papillions, Lord Max and Prince Teddy. Reach him at .


An Essayist? Yes, I Make an Attempt

Just as Richard Todd writes in Good Prose, “I awoke one morning to discover I was an essayist.”  Nearly six years after accepting an invitation from Doug Magill to write an occasional “piece” for his online site, Cleveland Business Review, I make the same discovery. I am addicted to crafting essays on business, politics, literature—fearlessly repeating E.M. Forester’s quote “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” After all, insists Todd in the 2013 book he wrote with Tracy Kidder, “Essayists tend to argue with themselves. The inner dialogue that might be suppressed in other writing finds a forum here. Montaigne blessed the form when he said, ‘If I knew my own mind, I would not make essays. I would make decisions.’”
Not only did Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) bless the form but the French writer expressed “subjective reflections on topics such as religion, education, friendship, love, and freedom,” according to the website bio. He called these original works essais—that is, “attempts” in French. And a new literary genre was born, the essay. By the year 1588, Montaigne had a third volume of essays in print, with such tidbits as “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know” and “I quote others only in order the better to express myself.” The popularity of the essay has never waned since.
“Essays are self-authorizing,” write Kidder and Todd in the chapter dedicated solely to essays. “This is the dilemma but also the pleasure of the form. The chances are that nobody asked for your opinion. But if your idea is fresh, it will surprise even someone, perhaps an assigning editor, who did ask.” Moreover, the Kidder-Todd collaboration adds, “just as no word has an exact synonym, no idea can be exactly paraphrased.” And further, the Pulitzer-winning writer of The Soul of a New Machine and his patient longtime editor insist that the “essayist’s relationship with the reader depends, as always, on mutual trust, but trust of a special kind. In the essay, trust in the author and disagreement with the author can coexist.”
That’s what Doug Magill believes too. That’s why he created Cleveland Business Review in 2011 and invited folks like me to write for it. Doug, whom I met when I was adding a bit of business to the culture of Northern Ohio Live magazine in 2005, was an entrepreneur with an impressive business past. At the time, along with Paul DeLuca and Kathleen Haley, he was promoting Cleveland Business Radio on WERE-1300.
With 40 years of reporting experience behind me, I was—and remain—eager to attach my byline to stories, especially about business management. My first CBR article reflected on “talking” with Silent Cal Coolidge’s statue when I was on assignment for Industry Week magazine in the early ‘90s. President Coolidge had a penchant for what I call MBSOOTW—Management By Staying Out Of the Way. It’s a lesser-known corollary to Management By Walking Around. MBSOOTW keeps politicians and policy wonks from tinkering with market economics. If you haven’t already noticed, many pols and wonks resemble 13-year-old Monopoly addicts buying Park Place with brightly colored but wholly worthless money. Decades ago, Calvin Coolidge summed up his economic philosophy with this axiom: “The business of America is business.” He backed up those six words with restraint.
As you can see, classic business lessons are what I have traded in. Classic leadership lessons as well. To Peter Drucker’s way of thinking, the true leader is the exceptional musician who knows how to create great music, but does not delude himself into thinking that he’s the whole band. Further, Drucker argued that exceptional leaders—think those in the category of Lincoln or Churchill—understand “leadership as responsibility rather than as rank and privilege,” offering this illustration: “Effective leaders are rarely ‘permissive.’ But when things go wrong—and they always do—they do not blame others….Harry Truman’s folksy ‘The buck stops here’ is still as good a definition as any.”
And, on occasion, lessons on great messaging—from the classic essayist E.B. White to the contemporary master Arthur Plotnik. “With…readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude?” asks the author of the journalistic classic The Elements of Editing. “Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even troubadours, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly.”
Hallelujah! say I. (Particularly in the last few years I haven’t seen so much settled content since my days as a bulk-buyer of generic mac-n-cheese dinner. My family, friends, and colleagues—savvy media consumers all—share that sentiment, if not my preference for the perfect entree.) With no slight at all to the use of middle-of-the-road grammar, Plotnik constructs a compelling 275-page case to the message-makers “whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”
Whether the topic is writing, business, politics, family, or plain nonsense, E.B. White is right—“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” In the contemporary world of words, E.B. White is the gold standard; the rest of us are just filling in the spaces in between. Yet we all know that each of us—including those who craft ideas for Cleveland Business Review—is, to quote White, a “self-liberated man.”
Contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. whose pointed ears are greatly loved.. Reach him at .

A Page Borrowed from Twain

By J.F. McKenna

Mike Pitts is a South Carolina legislator whose sense of constitutionally telling mischief reaches across the nation. Interestingly enough, he reminds me of an old mischief-maker named Sam Clemens, who made it a professional practice to gore oxen with reckless abandon.

The Republican Pitts, with prepared legislation reportedly in hand Tuesday, proposed a mandatory journalist registry and potential jail sentences for violators. The legislation itself even carried a fancy name for censorship—the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry.”

As U.S. News and World Report explained this week—with complete freedom, I should add—“If it became law, people working as journalists without registering would face $25 fines. Second offenses would be misdemeanors punishable by a $100 fine and 15 days in jail, and repeat offenders would face $500 fines and 30 days in jail.

“Media outlets,” the magazine continued, “would have to conduct criminal record background checks on prospective hires and journalists would be ineligible for registry if they had ‘demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.’”

No surprise to this long-unlicensed member of the press, the uproar was quick and certain. Many network television and print journos found their Brooks Brothers’ knickers in a bunch, and they rushed on camera to discuss the imminent fall of the Republic.

The hour’s top story: Woe to We the People. Right after this message.

Being a semi-reformed troublemaker myself, I suspect Mike Pitts of the S.C. legislature was having a good laugh. The day after unloading his constitutionally errant measure, he wrote this on Facebook:

“I filed this legislation as an experiment to make a point about the media and how they only care about the Constitution when it comes their portion of the 1st Amendment. In doing so, I put the media under the microscope, and they did not like it.

“They constantly attack people who follow their Christian beliefs and attempt to portray them as bigots, and they certainly do not like the fact that normal everyday Americans gather to petition the government and air grievances. Look no further than how they have demonized the Tea Party. Furthermore, they love to trample on our 2nd Amendment rights to ‘Keep and Bear Arms.’ If they had their way, there would be no 2nd Amendment.”

As various gored oxen wailed in the background, Pitt had made his point: The U.S. Constitution is not a legislative buffet for those who think they can simply opt for a figurative salad and cottage cheese and deny another patron his ground steak and french fries. Take it the way it has been served since 1787.

That sly Rep. Pitts would certainly win plaudits from old Sam Clemens, who said that “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

At his 1873 talk at the Hartford, Conn., Monday Evening Club, Clemens continued with this critique: “[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.

“I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.”

“Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media,” noted Maria Popova in her wonderful website, Brain Pickings— .  Do check it out.

Applying so-called “fixes” to any part of the Bill of Rights is tampering with all constitutional security. To quote the Hudson Institute scholar Christopher DeMuth Sr., “Our Constitution is treated as a reliquary, worthy of reverence but no longer of much practical use. Yet the Constitution reflects, in many deep and subtle ways, the character of the people who established it and have lived and prospered under it for centuries.”

People like Mike Pitts and Sam Clemens, that cagey book author who observed that “in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. Reach him at .

Words Well Written, a Life Well Spent

By J.F. McKenna

Writing well is a pleasure in itself. The joining of the ideal subject to the perfect verb, the crafting of paragraphs that tell a story long on clarity and style, the fashioning of a clever lead promising an equally clever ending—all are delights of writing well.

No one knew that better than William Zinsser. And few preached the joy of writing well to others better than Zinsser.

“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism, or good business writing, or good technical writing, or good travel writing, or good sports writing. It can’t,” declared the writer, editor and teacher in his 1998 introduction to On Writing Well, the best-known of his shelf of books. “Good English is your passport to wherever you need to go in your writing, your work and your life. All the writers I’ve quoted in this book are vastly different in personality and style. But all of them write good English. You can, too.”

William Knowlton Zinsser won’t be with his disciples to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his classic next year. The East Coast native and one-time drama critic of The New York Herald Tribune died this past May at 92. I’m sorry I never got to meet him in person, or to introduce him to the journalists who literally guided me in my apprenticeship in Cleveland—Russ Faist, Stan Modic, Joe Breig. Stan would have been fiercely devoted to Zinsser’s advice that “when you’re ready to stop, stop,” and Zinsser would have gladly endorsed Russ’ favorite newsroom doggerel: Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.

Zinsser started creating On Writing Well in 1974, the year I talked my way into a Kent State-approved journalism internship at the weekly Universe Bulletin. “By then I had been teaching at Yale for four years,” Zinsser would later recall in his 2009 memoir, Writing Places, “and I liked the idea of trying to capture my course in a book.” Back in that Summer of Watergate, I would have considered myself lucky to have just a copy of Zinsser’s notes to go with my frontline education from such old pros as Joe and Russ at East 9th Street and Superior Avenue.

“Joe, with Randy on his vacation, you’re going to handle obituaries, ok?” Russ said. “It’s standard stuff, a chance to pick up house style. You’ll get it quick.”

“Got it, Russ.”

“One more thing, Joe. No one in this paper ever ‘passed away.’ Here one moment, gone the next. Everyone ‘died.’”

By the end of that summer I had moved from obits to news and feature stories—and to this day I still haven’t lost my appreciation for the basics of any craft, but especially journalism. A couple of years after that internship, I discovered William Zinsser and On Writing Well. The discovery has proved my continuing post-graduate education in the word trade.

Here’s how the author, in his 2009 book, Writing Places, recalled putting together the first edition of On Writing Well:

I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview how to write about travel and science and technology and sports and the arts, and how to write topical humor. Throughout I provided examples of writing I admired in those fields. The authors I chose were very different in personality and style, but all of them wrote good English. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices. Any style is acceptable if the writing is clear.

For many non-journalists, On Writing Well has been a trusted guide, too. “Countless careers,” Zinsser advises in the book, “rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently….But just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity….”

So sayeth still—from the eternity of book publishing, that is—William Zinsser, a man who spent 13 years at the Herald Tribune, 11 years as a freelance writer and other years as a writing teacher at Yale and to the larger world. Hard credentials to ignore. And, for extra measure, add in his other books, including Mitchell & Russ and Spring Training, a book about my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.

Zinsser modestly called himself “a writer who taught”—until glaucoma brought an end to seventy years of writing in 2012. And even then he welcomed requests for help with writing problems. As he said, “No project too weird.”

So is there a suitable epitaph for William Zinsser, a fellow who said he was cursed with optimism, an acknowledged demon who chased word clutter, and a common man’s philosopher who was often wary about security in life as a goal? That epitaph is found in the last paragraph of Writing Places:

And yet, stuck with my traditional skills, I’m not feeling obsolete. Language is still king, writing still the supreme conveyor of thoughts and ideas and memories and emotions. Somebody will staff  and have to write those Web sites and blogs and video scripts and audio scripts….Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon. That can make an interesting life.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .











CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .

The Writer’s Contemporary Counterpart to Dr. Spock

By J.F. McKenna
Francis Flaherty has done as much for today’s bedeviled writers as the celebrated pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock once did for anxious and uncertain parents up late at night with sick and inconsolable tots.

Similarly to what the good physician accomplished when he first published Baby and Child Care in the 1940s, story doctor Flaherty has shared years of newsroom savvy in The Elements of Story. Flaherty’s 2009 book clarifies non-fiction writing in terms of “the level of story, by which I mean the architecture, the bones, the tendrils, of an article. This book is about how to make a story move.”

Make no mistake: This kind of prescriptive advice has been far too sparse in the past—and is certainly needed more than ever today, as much of the instantaneously delivered writing makes readers wince if not wander and causes demanding old-school editors to add a dash of Pepto to their Jim Beam. For readers, writers and editors alike—this one included—The Elements of Story may be the greatest advancement in real journalism since the inverted pyramid, or at least the page-two Editors’Correction.

And the progress doesn’t stop at the newsstand, be it brick or click. “I find that the tenets of story doctoring apply not just to journalism but to writing writ large,” insists Flaherty, whose professional pedigree boasts a long tenure as a New York Times editor and clips from such tony pubs as Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. “Story doctoring is all about prose that is riveting and persuasive, and as such it has currency for every writer, from the freelancer in his garret to the English grad student, from the beat reporter to the aspiring blogger.”

Admittedly, I may be a bit biased about Flaherty as a craftsman in the trade. He’s earned his rightful spot in the writers’ bunk house, yet he’s still eager to share his wealth of hard-earned knowledge with darn near anyone. Just wander down the digital trail to the Gotham Writers site — There you’ll find the portrait of the artist with a real-world deadline:

When Frank first began working at the Times, he was assigned to write an investment column for the Business section. “It’s quite difficult to write a compelling column about bond funds,” he says. “You have to learn a way into it.” But the good news? “If you can write compellingly about stuff like that, then it’s all the easier to write well about something you do care about.”

Particularly impressive to this Kent State J-school grad is Flaherty’s advice on the masterful treatment of leads, transitions and kickers—the basic newswriting components that, handled with deftness, can make a reader sit up and smile, get angry and red-faced, cry aloud in sympathy, or a combination thereof.

Good story leads, for example, “must fill two contradictory roles,” Flaherty counsels his by-the-book disciples. “They must paint with a ‘broad brush’—that is, state the essential point of the story—and they must be vivid and specific.

“How can they do both these things?” he continues. “The secret is this. While good leads are specific, the specifics they cite must sound the central chord of the tale.”

The Elements of Story is chockablock with similar time-tested advice for serious writers—those guys and gals who instinctively gravitate toward a genuine wordsmith such as Flaherty, who himself modestly describes the book as “a ‘field guide,’ really, into the newsroom.”

Back in my own J-school days, one of our standard texts featured Matthew Arnold’s description of early-day journalism as “literature in a hurry.” Through the years my colleagues have joked that Arnold lost his poetic license over that comment. A lot of today’s contemporary news and commentary, in print or online, is unstructured, barely readable proof that haste makes waste.

Maybe, just maybe, Francis Flaherty and his well-constructed guide will prove that old English scribbler right, after all.


J.F. McKenna, a former resident of Cleveland’s West Park, has worked as a reporter, business editor and communication specialist. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .


The Extraordinary Fellow From Down the Road

By J.F. McKenna

Being born on or near the Fourth of July is widely considered a good omen for any American. Making his July 4 exit from life’s stage was particularly fitting for Richard Mellon Scaife—Pittsburgh publisher, celebrated philanthropist and conservative philosopher. Scaife, who died one day after his 82nd birthday, was the extraordinary fellow from down the road, the citizen who meant it when he spoke of “limited government, individual rights and a strong defense.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which Scaife acquired in 1969 and from which he charted the course of Trib Total Media, needed a special section of its Sunday edition to squeeze in the many tributes to the Ligonier, Pa., native. Ironically, the most-telling picture of the man came not from others but from one of his recent columns:

Even today, when so many kinds of media offer endless information, newspapers are unique and invaluable: They provide the most substantive, trustworthy reporting from the most experienced, reliable writers and editors;they consistently break more of the important stories, investigate more of the critical issues, and expose more of the secrets that we need to know. Newspapers, more than any other medium, keep a watchful eye on government at all levels, on business and technology, medicine and science, and other aspects of our lives.

Certainly sentiments one would expect from a spiritual descendant of our Founding Fathers. Not sentiments one would particularly expect from an heir to the redoubtable Mellon family fortune.

Like the nation itself, Scaife represents the exceptional case.

A shy person whose family name remains linked to Alcoa, banking and Gulf Oil, a Yale flunk-out who earned a degree in British history, a libertarian newspaperman who suffered no illusions that ours is a dangerous world, a generous citizen who saw value in encouraging the arts for this generation and future generations—that was Richard Scaife.

“By the time the 1950s ended, Mr. Scaife had also viewed and opposed a liberal shift taking place in the country, which included a stronger government role apparent in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations,” wrote the rival Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He supported the ultra-conservative Mr. Goldwater’s failed presidential bid and the successful presidential campaigns afterward of Richard Nixon, to whom he gave $1 million in 1972. More relevant to his local roots, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1990s to spur creation of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, which became a conservative voice on Western Pennsylvania issues long dominated by liberal or centrist Democrats.”

Likewise, Scaife was an original money-man behind the conservative Heritage Foundation. The foundation president’s Jim DeMint and founder Edwin Feulner described Scaife as a “man of vision as well as conviction,” adding:

“Dick Scaife was instrumental in creating a new breed of public policy institute in Washington that many deemed ‘‍risky,’‍ even ‘‍ill conceived.’ Dick’s steadfast support since 1973 allowed Heritage to become not only a permanent institution in Washington, but a permanent player in the public debate.”

Yet, as a savvy newsman, Scaife recognized the value of genuine content over mere labels. In its obituary of Scaife, the Post-Gazette noted that the philanthropist “was reported in 2010 to have become a six-figure contributor to the William J. Clinton Foundation, the ex-president’s charity to work on global improvements.”

Not long ago, Scaife announced publicly that he had untreatable cancer. Weeks later, the man with two deadlines was writing about the world’s future—from Pittsburgh to Prague and from Cleveland to Chengdu. One of his legacies was this warning to all.

“If we’ve learned anything in the Obama years, and with every president in my lifetime, it is that trying to appease our enemies does not succeed,” Scaife wrote. “Appeasement killed 60 million people in World War II;millions more have died or suffered terribly because of it in the decades since.

“I hope the next president we elect understands the threats…as resolutely as Ronald Reagan did. And I hope the next president realizes that appeasement—particularly of a nation like Russia or a leader like Putin—is one of the gravest threats of all.”

Rest in peace, extraordinary fellow from down the road.


J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .


‘The Writer’s Art’ at 30 Remains Invaluable

By J.F. McKenna

The writer’s craft is one learned, relearned, reworked and further burnished every day. Over time the guides to the craft stand above you, teach by correction as well as encouragement and sometimes appear in the form of books that keep you company over lunch or late into the evening.

As a writer I’ve been blessed to have such a cadre of teachers.

In my newsroom apprenticeship at the Universe Bulletin, I often heard Russ Faist sing out a journalistic saw he himself had learned from Randall Brown at the old Cleveland News: “Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.” The lesson, like all of Russ’ lessons and kindnesses, has stuck with me and has been passed on many times to other wordsmiths looking to sharpen their work.

Many of my so-called graduate classes came courtesy of Stan Modic, a magazine editor whose broad vision for business and industry never deterred him from his primary desire to get the best story possible for the reader. Underneath his outwardly gruff handling of staff writers and editors lay a genuine caring about the stories featured in print and about the folks he directed to fashion those stories. (See Stan Modic: Guardian Angel and One Hell of a Journalist)

Readers, of course, remain the best lab instructors for writers—the first to tell us when the experiment has been an unqualified success, the first to point out that we’ve singed our ego while reaching for literary immortality. Be it ever so humbling, there’s nothing like a printed correction if you plan to make a career out of writing.

And then there is the arm’s-length teacher who provides wholesale instruction but offers encouragement and caution that one swears is directly aimed at him or her. That describes the late James J. Kilpatrick, aka Jack Kilpatrick or Kilpo. I’m convinced that part of his heavenly reward is knowing that his book The Writer’s Art continues to inspire and caution folks like me 30 years after its debut. We believe, as Kilpatrick writes in the book’s introduction, that “there is more to writing than merely being ‘effective.’”

“If the purpose of housing were solely to provide shelter from the rain, the Sun King could have built an A-frame,” Kilpatrick continues. “Instead, he built the Palace of Versailles.”

In a society that handles its instant, and not-so-instant, communication with all the care it gives to unwrapping a stick of gum, Kilpatrick’s comparison is worth pondering longer than the time it took to send that last tweet or e-mail. No? Wonder why today’s newspaper article or the inchoate company proposal seems disjointed and uninspired?

In The Writer’s Art, Kilpatrick insists that “writing comes in grades of quality in the fashion of beer and baseball games: good, better and best. Some usages, in my opinion, are better—not merely more effective, but better—than other usages….Second, I advance the proposition that these better ways can be mastered by writers who are serious about their writing.”

Those are the introductory chords of The Writer’s Art. The music gets even better from there.

“In the end,” he advises, “the test of how well we do our job is not in how well we cover the news, or review the movies, or chide a president, or criticize and actor, but in how well we write…. The chief difference between good writing and better writing may be measured by the number of imperceptible hesitations the reader experiences as he goes along.”

That sums up the philosophy of James Jackson Kilpatrick—reporter, editor, political columnist and very readable author. After a distinguished career Kilpo died August 15, 2010, at the age of 89. Along with his family, he left thousands of better writers who had relished the professional advice he offered in columns. Those writers continue to be influenced by The Writer’s Art and Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art.

Jack Kilpatrick is sometimes remembered for his wrongheaded defense of racial segregation years ago, but he deserves nothing but praise for creating The Writer’s Art, a classic how-to that has mentored many a working journalist, including me.

“The writer’s art, of course, lies not in merely collecting words or in distinguishing among them,” he writes. “The art lies in stringing the right words together artfully. Newspaper reporters may begin by covering a luncheon speech at the Rotary Club, but if they are good reporters—reporters who write con amore—they will aspire to something higher.”

As a fellow who started newspapering as an obituary writer, I often urge others to heed Kilpo’s advice. “If you have little passion for the work, get out now,” I say. “Otherwise, your efforts will expose you.”

If your love for the craft is great but you don’t know Jack, quickly find a copy of The Writer’s Art and borrow all of Kilpatrick’s tips on wooing the muse. Maybe start with his thoughts on cadence—advice that appears in too few writing books. Follow that lesson with Kilpatrick’s prescription regarding the “music of words,” which is showcased in Fine Print:

“We must listen for it, for we read not only with our eyes, but also with our ears. It is therefore desirable that our sentences both read well and sound right. A writer—a serious writer—must cultivate an awareness of life’s rhythms. They are all around us, in the sounds of waves, in the changing of the traffic light, in the phases of the moon.”

As a syndicated columnist expounding on good writing, Kilpatrick was truly the Jack of our trade, composing a paean to the period or leading the hunt for the two-toned gerund. Good stuff filled with wit.

I’ve said it more than once. As a journalist, I’ve met many interesting people, some of them famous and others accomplished in the most unusual of ways. I’m sorry I never crossed paths with James J. Kilpatrick in person.

I did get a Christmas surprise from Kilpo in 2005. After I sent him an e-mail about his paean to the period, he was kind enough to write back. It was the kind of short, witty reply one would expect from the author of The Writer’s Art:

Dear Mr. McKenna—Many thanks for them kind words—and Merry, Merry. Jack Kilpatrick.

Season’s greetings aside, Kilpo has long been my trusted mentor at arm’s length—the distance from desk to bookshelf.

So he’ll remain.


J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. He also appears on the online site Steinbeck Now. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max.

Things Not Otherwise Noted: December Edition

By Doug Magill

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.  C.S. Lewis

It is by now well known that our President and all of his fawning administration officials, duped Democrats and laughingly gullible journalists lied about Obamacare.  It was never intended to cost less, provide more options or improve medical outcomes.  It was, and is, nothing more than a scheme to destroy any remaining semblance of free-market medical care and replace it with government control.  Which will leave all of us with a less options, poorer care and higher costs.  And undoubtedly with fewer physicians and less innovation.

Anyone who studied the Democrats in power when Obamacare was passed understood that ideological objectives mattered more than anything.  More than getting more people insured, more than improving medical care, more than making insurance affordable and more than giving people more control of their lives.  It will reign in history as the biggest lie propagated by government in the history of the republic-turning-into-administrative-dictatorship.

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini explained why Obamacare makes insurance more expensive, effectively outlawing cheaper coverage:

Why Does Obamacare Make Insurance More Expensive?

All of us knew in our student days of someone who sounded profound but actually espoused idiocy.  Our narcissist-in-chief is constantly being exposed as an overwhelmingly hollow shell who does not understand or choose to understand significant issues.  His language is a garden of barren branches that cuts off light and nourishes nothing.

Quotations From Chairman Barry.

The blunt tool of administrative fiat causes disruptions.  Liberals sniff and loftily proclaim about sacrifices – as long as it’s someone else’s.  Ultimately, by making individual choices impossible, individuals will suffer under Obamacare.  And, for some of the most in need, it will result in fatal consequences.

Dad Gives Up Trying To Find Health Insurance For His Son.

Many Americans are very concerned about health care coverage when they reach retirement age.  The strictures and costs of Obamacare are forcing many corporate plans to seek alternatives for their retirees, resulting in increased use of Medicare.  Adults in those circumstances have in the past comforted themselves with the knowledge that Advantage plans would cover the gaps in Medicare.  Unfortunately, the ideologues in Congress who crafted the health insurance legislation stripped Medicare Advantage to cover the gaping fiscal holes in Obamacare.  It’s not being reported, but retirees are going to be devastated by their lack of coverage.

The Worst Hits To Medicare Advantage Are Coming.

The words “efficiency” and “Federal government” will never be found together in a sentence.  Those of us with familiarity with large bureaucracies know that as they grow they become slower, more cumbersome, and more bound up in process rather than results.  The fact that the rollout of Obamacare was a systems failure of massive proportions bodes ill for anyone fantasizing about the capability of government managing health care any better than it does today.

Obama’s Damaging Confession About Government.

Liberals who wish to manage others’ lives never really consider the implications of what they propose and wish to legislate.  Obamacare is an even more massive example of unintended consequences.  Particularly when it forces you into Medicare, and then allows the state to seize your assets.

The State Can Seize Your Assets To Pay For Medicaid Treatments.

The list of those hurt by Obamacare will be huge.  It is perhaps just that the smarmy arts intelligentsia that so loathes the world west of the Hudson River will also be hard hit by the fraud of this legislation:

Faking It In New York City.

In a better world the press really would be the watchdog of our liberties.  Sadly, most journalists have less knowledge of history and government than the average college athlete.  And, they tend to betray the popular image by being followers of what is popular in their world and not independent at all.  It is axiomatic then that they tend to lean left.

Thanks To Ignorance The Press Leans Left.

Left-wind media types often tend to ridicule conservatives rather than dealing in the intricacies of policies or legislation.  Sometimes, the use of facts can prove more powerful than loaded language and stereotypes.

The 30-Second Ad That Should Terrify Incumbent Democrats.

There are innumerable instances where the heavy hand of government, no matter how well-intentioned, has created problems more massive than the ones that caused it to be originally involved.  The Endangered Species Act is one of the most glaring examples.

The 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act is Not a Cause For Celebration.

Liberal use of totalitarian dictates is becoming more obvious with Obamacare.  There are many more examples, but the government now is attempting to impose a vision of how we should live.  Like everything else, your choices will not matter.

Obama Moves to Impose His Vision of How We Should Live.

Sometimes ideological decisions seem counter-intuitive even to our gentle neighbors in Canada.  Pipelines have a purpose, and their construction generally improves safety and capability, encouraging economic growth.

This Is Why You Build Pipelines.

Obama learned politics in the arms of the Daley machine in Chicago.  So, it is no surprise he figured out that taking care of his friends will pay off, even if it does cost the United States $10 billion or so.

Government Takes Loss on GM to Help UAW Cronies.

It has not been a good year for the global warming crowd hiding behind the pontifications of “settled science”.  In fact, there have been a number of setbacks that should give everyone pause.

Top Seven Global Alarmist Setbacks in 2013.

The lack of global warming in the last few years is being called a “pause”.  One never ceases to be amazed at the ability of liberals to reinvent language to disguise truth.  Except that this “pause” may last quite a while.  Those of us who have worked with computer models know their bias toward the assumptions with which they are programmed.  When reality really begins to diverge from the models, perhaps the models have outlived their usefulness.

Global Warming Pause May Last a Long Time.

One wonders how massive bureaucracies manage to manage themselves.  Particularly in the civil service world where accountability is a distant memory.  The EPA’s highest-paid employee turns out to have committed fraud on a massive scale, while pretending to be a CIA agent.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

Climate Change Expert’s Massive Fraud at the EPA.

Access to power has induced more than a few of our elected representatives to enrich themselves.  Once in a while it becomes so transparent as to become a parody.

Another Environmental Self-Dealing Scam.

Many entertainment icons take the time to visit with and entertain our troops (thank you, Bob Hope).  Once in a while they learn a lesson themselves about what the military holds dear.

Robin Williams Learns What Retreat Means.

Doug Magill is a cancer survivor who knows more about dealing with the health-care bureaucracy than he ever wanted to know.  He is currently a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at

Random Thoughts Amid Mess Marketing

By J.F. McKenna

A professional associate invited me to watch President Obama’s Rose Garden presser on the Affordable Health Care Act. Frankly, I expected that accepting this invitation would demonstrate worthiness not only as a business colleague but as a luncheon partner as well.

As POTUS leaned on the outdoor bully pulpit, my mind began to drift, as the minds of veteran reporters often do after they’ve heard the opening salvo of their umpteenth political address. Drifting of this sort is typically accelerated when the aim of the address is to cover up recent failures. The almost-overnight debacle of the Obamacare website may have actually set a new record for initiating reportorial mind-wandering.

I started thinking about the late Ted Bernstein and his classic explanation of the difference between the words surprise and astonish.

In his classic text The Careful Writer, the iconic New York Times editor and language expert explains:  “You won’t catch this book retailing that bromidic tale about Noah Webster…who, when his wife said she was surprised at catching him dallying with the maid , replied, ‘No, madam, it is I who am surprised. You are astonished.’

“Nevertheless,” Bernstein continues, “the tale makes a point worth noticing about the two words, whose meaning tends to overlap these days. Both words convey the idea of wonder, but surprise contains the added ingredient of the unexpected.”

Even as I congratulated myself for reconstructing that passage from the book, the President’s pitch intruded into my reverie.

Of course, you’ve probably heard that –- the new website where people can apply for health insurance, and browse and buy affordable plans in most states –- hasn’t worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work….Through the marketplaces, you can get health insurance for what may be the equivalent of your cell phone bill or your cable bill, and that’s a good deal….So the fact is the product of the Affordable Care Act for people without health insurance is quality health insurance that’s affordable.  And that product is working.  It’s really good.  And it turns out there’s a massive demand for it….But the problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody.  And there’s no sugarcoating it.  The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process.  And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am — precisely because the product is good….And finally, if you’ve already tried to apply through the website and you’ve been stuck somewhere along the way, do not worry.  In the coming weeks, we will contact you directly, personally, with a concrete recommendation for how you can complete your application, shop for coverage, pick a plan that meets your needs, and get covered once and for all.

So here’s the bottom line.  The product, the health insurance is good.  The prices are good.  It is a good deal.  People don’t just want it; they’re showing up to buy it.  Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed….And in the meantime, you can bypass the website and apply by phone or in person.  So don’t let problems with the website deter you from signing up, or signing your family up, or showing your friends how to sign up, because it is worth it.  It will save you money.  

“Whoa!” said my colleague, no novice himself to the marketing racket. “I’m thinking that this infomercial should carry a disclaimer under the President’s image—overpaid spokesman.”

“He might be overselling, too,” I added charitably. “Remember what Peter Drucker always preached—the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous, and marketing means knowing and understanding the customer so well that the product sells itself.”

The presser concluded, I awaited my invitation to lunch. My colleague never made the offer. I was genuinely surprised.

On the other hand, while eating my lunch alone shortly thereafter, I digested some of what the President had said. I was simply astonished. Like most of the country.


CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor in chief of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He has chased stories throughout the country and as far away as Japan, Israel and that most exotic of financial lands, Wall Street. Reach him at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.

Boston Is Just the Latest Delivery

By J.F. McKenna

A day after the capture of the surviving Boston terrorist, the cable anchor rendered his top-of-the hour verdict that the danger was in effect over. All that his tone of assurance lacked was an accompanying grounding in fact. True, this particular eruption had indeed reached its zenith, leaving behind death and confusion and a collective sense of uneasy bravado among Greater Boston’s residents. Nowhere in sight, however, was the resolution to Mark Twain’s often quoted paradox about man—“the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.”

As I watched a few more minutes of news, I recalled a line from an editorial I had written for a business magazine in September 2001: “We are indeed a global economy in every sense. And a product we have never wanted has reached our borders.” The 9/11 jihadist attack in New York had proved a spectacular if lethal marketing blitz. Boston was the latest distribution point. And it’s anybody’s guess where a delivery from Hell might appear next—Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Denver or Seattle…

America has wide-open shelves for a product without a demand except by the producers themselves.

As the historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote in 2007, “bin Laden cited dozens of concocted reasons about why he attacked the United States; the only valid one was that he attacked America because he thought…he could get away with it.” Political campaigners regularly reminded us last year that “bin Laden was dead.” These same politicians omitted that the hatred—and the danger engendered by that hatred—hadn’t died with him. If anything, the once imported product of terrorism has become more potent over time, relying on a perversion of door-to-door marketing and enlisting neighborhood vendors who redefine the concept of hard selling.

Bleak as the metaphor strikes most of us, now is not the time to resign ourselves to terrorism as an inevitable global evil. Rather, it’s time to re-declare ourselves as a free people, to make our American time a high point in Western civilization, and the standard by which the world’s free tomorrows will be measured. In short, it’s time to reissue a classic Yankee warning to brigands here and abroad: Don’t tread on me.

To employ another metaphor—this one from the arena of duty, honor, country—leaders must be willing to take the point.

The Obama Administration, in its immediate dealings with terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, gets to establish the national tone and rhythm at the outset. The President might want to look to the Victor Davis Hansons of the nation, sages who counsel that “the key for Western societies in times of peril has been to calculate the proper balance between personal freedom and collective military preparedness.” Easy it will not be for Barack Obama, but the task is no longer above his pay grade and the stakes are nothing short of historic.

Likewise, Congress will have to forego the tiresome legislative agendas and political strategies concocted prior to the afternoon of April 15. Existing bills and inchoate deals over immigration and gun control will have to give way to the so-called clean sheet of paper on which effective short- and long-term security strategies can be drawn. Those who simply can’t abandon their embrace of the politically correct and the politically expedient will have to exercise their own sense of honesty and retire from Washington’s chambers. Again, the stakes are too high to do otherwise.

America’s Fourth Estate should take particular note of such examples. Acting as the nation’s constitutionally enshrined conscience has value only if that conscience is well-formed. Overall, the media’s recent record has been poor with regard to national-security reporting, reminding me of a long-ago comment by Bernard Lewis, that grand Western expert on the Middle East. “In more modern times,” Prof. Lewis said, “there are new threats…from what I am tempted to call the fashion tsars of the ideological hemline—those who determine what ideas shall be worn this season—what length, what style, and what cut. The set rules known as ‘political correctness’ provides one version of this.” Going forward, America will depend on trusted tellers, not rhetorical tailors, for its serious journalism.

Most important, each one of us must accept a share of the leadership, picking up a weapon—be it a tool of warfare or a tool of commerce— taking a “watch” or two, and remaining steadfast about sticking up for the more perfect union that our founders handed to us and that others would destroy.

“Consensual governments can, in extremis, craft security legislation consistent with constitutional principles that will protect citizens without eroding their rights,” Prof. Hanson said during the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in 2008. “But government has no remedy once citizens voluntarily begin to abandon freedom of expression out of fear or guilt—or misguided ideologies designed to deny the singularity of their civilization.”

The terror directed at us is a stockpiled product. Boston is just the latest delivery. More will arrive unless the marketplace is cleared.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant, and former editor at Industry Week, Tooling & Production, and Northern Ohio Live magazines. Reach him at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.