Do the work, stay focused, and believe
I’ll never forget the Hubble lecture.
We gathered in the tiny conference room for our weekly news staff meeting.
The editor started off, but then – as he would do – he had to get something off his chest. It was about the Hubble telescope. They had just launched the thing, and it wasn’t working very well. Someone or some team on the ground had messed up. The primary mirror had been polished to the wrong shape, and the tiniest of mistakes here threw off all of the very precise work Hubble was designed to do.
It was a significant problem, quite a sensation and the butt of many late-night TV jokes. (It got fixed later, and the Hubble today is just grand, floating above our heads and peering into space.)
The editor, Bill, went on. He was actually offended not only at the embarrassment to the country and the misspending of tax dollars but at just the sloppiness of the work. When he was done, the eight of us gathered around the conference table felt that we ourselves were personally responsible for the Hubble’s failure. Bill could do that.
Sweat the details, people. This is what we do, he stressed and not in a gentle tone. We are fair, accurate and thorough in our work, so sweat the details. There are consequences when you let up.
Bill Hanna died this week. He had a long career. He believed in the calling of journalism, though he might not have used the word “calling.” To him, holding government officials into account – and, yes, delighting when we caught them with their hands in the cookie jar, as he would say – was a duty he felt in his bones.
He had a good run with newspapers and with The Associated Press. I knew him at the Mesabi Daily News in Virginia, Minnesota, where he ran the newsroom for about 30 years. I was his No. 2 for six years a long time ago.
He worked too hard. He worked us hard, and he held our feet to the fire so we would bring that mentality to the people and institutions we covered. He reminded us constantly that the newspaper should be viewed as a public trust.
What a great crew we had. Best job ever. As the old saying goes, I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience, and I wouldn’t give two bits to go back.
There are no perfect role models. There are people from whom we can learn. There are people who can hold to a singular vision of what their work is. Bill bristled at too much abstract talk, but he knew that as much as the newspaper is a public trust, our role is to work – be fair, accurate and thorough – and to be stewards, passing along something good that will continue to benefit its community.
Best job ever, Bill. Thanks.
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.