- Historic Sites
“the First Rough Draft Of History”
… is today’s newspaper. Here the executive editor of the Washington ‘Post’ takes us on a spirited dash through the minefields that await reporters and editors who gather and disseminate a most valuable commodity.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Well, Bud Nossiter is now covering the United Nations for the New York Times but not because he said that. The great challenge of an editor is to get the newspaper to work at 100 percent. And any editor who says he’s at 100 percent is lying. I am the luckiest guy alive. I came to the Post at exactly the right time, at a time when its financial position was secure and at a time when the new owner, Katharine, had convinced herself you have to spend some money to get better. I think my editorial budget doubled in something like a year or two, and it is now perhaps ten times what it was seventeen years ago. Now if you go to a newspaper that’s operating at 50 percent capacity, I would think that you could get it to 85 in a year with a little money and a little energy and a little courage. Then I think that it will take you five years to get it to 87 and ten years to get to 90 and maybe twenty years to get to 95. So the potential is still there. I don’t know if there’s ever been a day when I looked at the newspaper and said, “Goddamn it, that’s the best we can do. It just can’t get any better than that. It can’t get any better written. It can’t get any better printed. It can’t get any better designed. It can’t get any better conceived.” I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I sure as hell have seen some issues that, on a breaking story, a tough story, made me say, “Son of a bitch, there it is, a good newspaper—”a good first draft of history.’ ” And there are some issues that made me say, “Oh, ————! How could I have done that?”
What’s your biggest professional regret?
You know, it sounds decadent, but I don’t think I’ve got any. I would have loved not to have gone through the Janet Cooke ordeal. But on the scale of ups, that is a barely measurable down, and I learned something from that experience.
What are you proudest of?
Of getting the paper as close to its potential as it is. Every day it’s a pretty good newspaper, and it’s got a helluva home field. It’s a good franchise. The morning paper in the capital of the free world.
What would you do if you weren’t in this business?
I’d like to be Lanny Budd. Have you ever read the Upton Sinclair novels about Lanny Budd? He’s the journalist’s Walter Mitty. The President of the United States calls him up and says, “Lanny, I’m in a real jam. Would you go to this country.…” And that’s the book. Lanny drops his newspaper job and goes over and settles things in some obscure African country.
Walter Lippmann did that.
Nobody’s done what I’m talking about. Ed Williams and I had a fantasy of doing this at one point. That we’d both quit our jobs and work as a team.
Journalist-mercenaries dedicated to the good?
Yeah, go up to Boston and settle the school strike. And then settle some other job and go over to the Falklands.
Fantasies aside, if you had the whole newspaper game to do over again, would you?
I would do it so fast! I wonder what took me so long, till I was sixteen, when I got my first job as a copy boy.