Larry Martz, a veteran newspaperman and Newsweek reporter, writer and editor, has written a reporter’s novel, a clear-eyed look at the ethical perils, personal entanglements, and reporting pitfalls faced by Billy Morgan, a young man beginning his career on the fictional Detroit Journal in To Know the Truth [AuthorHouse, November 2012]. Martz is an OPC member and former long-serving chairman of the Freedom of the Press Committee. He got his start in daily journalism at The Pontiac Press in Michigan and The Detroit News.
The Journal depicted in the novel bears the scars familiar to American newspapers in the 1950s, long before carpets, air-conditioning, and computers replaced the stale air and cigarette-scarred linoleum of the City Room.
Young Morgan’s efforts to cover a mayoral campaign morph into a Teamsters’ corruption scandal and a murder investigation, which leads the reader into the sordid world of Detroit’s politics before the auto industry’s collapse.
In some of his best writing, Martz weaves a series of endearing vignettes into the narrative describing a reporter’s education at the hands of a middle-aged assistant city editor, Sandy Bell.
“Some things Sandy just pounded into us: get the story; always ask the next question; forget fancy writing; make your deadline. Some things we seemed to pick up from the city room air, thick with dust and cigarette smoke: the kinds of stories there were and the jargon that went with each one; the prissy prurience of journalism in the late ’50s; the blatant racism that nearly everybody took for granted.”
Morgan and Bell collaborate on Morgan’s stories in a way that tells the reader in practical terms how reporters and editors conspire in their most creative moments.
“I had the lead all right,” Martz writes in Morgan’s voice: “But the rest of the piece was giving me a lot of trouble. I couldn’t get the structure right, the tone was veering between worshipful and snotty, and I didn’t know how I was going to end it.”
Finally, young Morgan “bundled up the whole raggedy mess of paper, with its scribbles and crossed-out patches, and walked it over to Sandy’s desk. ‘I can’t get it right,’ I said.
“He scanned it quickly, then read through more slowly. ‘Good lead,’ he said. ‘The trouble is, you just sort of drift after that,’ Bell tells his reporter.
Morgan listens carefully. “What I needed, he said, was a billboard: ‘Put up a sign to tell people what this story is about, why they’re reading it. You need a second paragraph that says something like, ‘This was part of a day’s campaigning that took in four stops, reached from rich folks to poor folks and proved Lander is the candidate to beat.’ In your own better language, of course.”
Bell’s advice gives Morgan a way to organize the rest of the story. The effect is magical. “He handed the pile of manuscript back to me, and suddenly the whole thing was clear. It was like a rabbit from a hat. How did he do that?”
Lodged in a textbook, these words would feel didactic. In Martz’s hands, they become revelatory.
John Martin serves with the author on the OPC Freedom of the Press Committee.