Thursday, January 29, 2009

Larry Laurain, a reporter's editor

Some have challenged, and with some justification, that I have been very rough on some editors. So while it may sound that I take no quarter with editors I have actually had more editors who have been good or great than the other kind.

Here is just one example, and because the others are living and probably would appreciate not being named here right now, we'll just talk about the late Lawrence A. "Larry" Laurain today.

Larry was the City Editor at the Oakland Press during my first couple years there in 1984 and 1985. He was my first experience with a "big" city editor and it was perhaps somewhat unfair to measure those that came after against his standard.

In this case let's go to the end of the story: Larry died of esophageal cancer in August 1985. He had just served as president of the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the time of his death. In fact, the chapter awards an annual $2,500 Lawrence A. Laurain Scholarship annually to a student in Southeast Michigan with an interest in journalism.

On his death bed in the hospital, he asked that I come and visit and he gave me directions to his computer file and a pre-written obituary. Another editor and I pulled up the file and it had "xxx" where the date of his death was. It included a short description of his successful battle over alcoholism which I'm sure he believed we would have not included in an obit we would have written about him. He wanted honest and so he wrote his own obituary.

Before I met him, his 17-year journalism career which included a variety of assignments, included The Royal Oak Tribune, The Macomb Daily, United Press International and finally the City Editor of The Oakland Press.

Larry was a steely-eyed, quiet man who often smoked a pipe back in the days when cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke was allowed in the newsroom. He was direct, but kind about it. If you messed up you knew from his eyes before you heard it from his mouth.

You could argue with him and he would listen. Sometimes you could even change his mind about an assignment. Having been a street reporter who covered cops, courts, cities, schools and the great range of topics that a beat reporter can cover, reporters more than not, respected his judgement on stories.

His editing style was to call you over to his desk and have you stand behind him while he showed you what he proposed to do with your story. If you disagreed and had a good reason, he would return your copy to its original state. Except on extreme deadline, he wanted your input on what he was doing to your copy.

All of that concern grew out of his long experience as a reporter and his dealings with editors.

He fiercely defended his reporters to the editors above him.

Example: The Oakland Press was my first "real" daily newspaper job. I had worked there for about three or four months when a source at the Oakland County Sheriff's Department pointed me to a shoplifting report that involved the Chief of Police of Redford Township.

The detective was upset that the episode had been handled quietly in court and that the man remained as chief of police because no one knew about it. The chief had lifted a small amount of film from a store and left without paying for it. The report indicated he had more than $50 in his wallet and was capable of paying the bill when he was detained by store security.

It appeared the chief was having more of an emotional breakdown than that he had become a criminal. When I told Larry about the story he told me to go get it. Of course, that meant I had to call the Chief of Police. When I first called him at work, he freaked and told me he couldn't talk about it at work and that he would call me later from his home. He also ended the conversation that if I was going to do this story his life would be ruined and he would not have a reason to live.

When I told Larry that, he told me to let him know when the chief called back because he wanted to eavesdrop on the conversation. (Probably because I was new he wanted to make sure I covered all the bases).

A couple hours later, the chief did call back and Larry picked up on another extension. The chief started with an impassioned plea that I drop the whole thing, that he was getting psychiatric help and that release of a story would leave him few options. It was obvious he was talking about suicide.

I went forward with the questions, most of which he declined to answer, but it ended with a second plea that I drop the story. When I got off the phone I really felt I had this man's life in my hands. "What now?" I asked Larry. "Do your story," he said.

When the editor-in-chief spotted the story in the queue and read what I was working on, she called Larry into her office and recommended he pull me off the story and give it to a more experienced reporter to handle. The closed door conversation was loud enough I could hear much of it from my desk in the now almost empty newsroom.

A half hour later, Larry emerged from the office and I looked at him like "what's up?" Again, he looked at me and said: "It's your story, do it." I worried that my story would drive a man to kill himself, but Larry reminded me that this was a person who was in charge of a large contingent of armed employees, his shoplifting and the reasons for it were indications he was not emotionally capable of doing that.

The story ran the next day, the chief resigned the next day and what I learned later was that the chief got help, that the stress of the police job was simply too much for him and he later went on to a fairly successful real estate career. So there was, fortunately, no dramatic end to the story.

But Larry stood up, looked out and fought for me. I never forgot that.

Another thing Larry would do to help reporters involved minor holes in a story. Say he wanted information from another city source, police source, etc., instead of bothering you while you working on your next thing, he would pick up the phone, make the call himself and add the information he wanted to the story. It was something he did that was very, very much appreciated by the reporters who worked for him.

Because he knew his way around reporting he became your helper, not your boss, although he was always that as well. There were a few times, a short press release would arrive on his desk that would normally be on my beat. I was always busy, so he would frequently rewrite the release, sometimes making a call to get a quote, and the story would appear in the paper with my byline on it even though I had never seen it.

That may seem like a violation of some kind, but I always appreciated the fact that Larry understood that even brief interruptions for a press release rewrite could cost you an hour or two on another project you were working on. And because story count at the Oakland Press was everything at the time (it was charted like daily stocks) those little bylines helped keep the wolf away from the door.

That leads to another example of how Larry was the first line of defense between his reporters and the editor. One time my story count dropped by half during a month. That troubled the editor who wanted to call me on the carpet, but Larry intervened and reminded the editor that she should check the schedule first as I had been on vacation for two weeks.

He reprimanded (and boy could he reprimand) in private, he praised in public and he never allowed the editors above him to interfere with his reporters. He often took a beating for me and others and I am eternally grateful to him for that.

As I have mentioned before, one of my first editors at the Journal was very much like Larry and those were the great days at the Journal. One time when I was arguing with him over an assignment, the Journal editor looked at me with a wry smile and told me: "You have now argued with me longer than it would have taken to do the story." We both laughed and I shut up and did the story. We recently talked about this incident, which he does not remember, but agreed it was something he would have said.

Being an editor is not easy, being a good editor is even tougher. But the editors that I have had and enjoyed working with were those who treated the job like an Army foxhole. They were in it with you and they never asked you to do anything they wouldn't do or hadn't done themselves.


Morris said...

I worked with Larry Laurain at the Advisor Newspapers in Utica and at the Oakland Press. He was one of the best editors and writers I have known.

There was a time when he ran a letter to the editor in the paper supporting the Neo-Nazis movement. I was really upset at him for it and walked into his office to tell him. After I ranted for about ten minutes I took a breath and waited for him to support his action. He just said, "Wait."

Well, over the next couple of weeks the letters poured in taking the letter writer to task. Larry knew something that every editor should know, his readers. When I returned to his office I just smiled. He had done the right thing.

Now that I am back at the Oakland Press, I think about him often. He is one of the ghosts around this old building. One of the good ones, I should add.


Anonymous said...

I have been one of those sometimes critical voices here. This story was great and valuable, however. Any blog covering the media is a valuable tool. I have never meant my criticisms here to mean that your targets are not deserving. Simply reminding people constantly who are still in an environment with poor management just how poor that management is can be frustrating. Showing us that there are editors and managers out there who are fair and passionate is much more effective. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this compelling look at a rare, passionate, old-time editor. I have been in the business 35 years, and none touched me or taught me more than a handful of editors from my early years at small newspapers. Like you, they made me proud to be a newspaperman. Lately all I've heard is, you have no future, take the buyout. I did.

Anonymous said...

As a recovering journalist, your blog on Larry Laurain is a fine tribute to one helluva editor. I was blessed to work with a few Larry Laurians, whom I recall with fondness and gratitude in order to erase the memories of bad ones.

PatPlays27 said...

Larry was my older brother. Nice to hear these words -
Patricia (Laurain) White