Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Success in Journalism: Habits and Perspectives

BOND: And you learned at the Recorder the things that you might've learned had you gone to J school.


RASPBERRY: Some of them.


BOND: How to write a lead.


RASPBERRY: How to write leads, how to write headlines, how to structure a story -- but I learned something I think that I'm not sure I would have learned in journalism school. I had been writing papers for my college professors and they were, you know, good in the sense that they tended to be grammatically correct and I learned little tricks about, you know, sticking in short sentences after a series of longer ones, but they were not -- I'm glad I can't find any of them now, but I was writing then for an audience of one who had to read my work.


The first thing that hit me when I went to the Indianapolis Recorder was that nobody has to read what I'm writing. Nobody has to read it! And this was a worrisome thing to me and I learned not because somebody taught me about leads, but because I was afraid that I'd do all this work and nobody would read it. They let us write our own headlines so I would write a headline that I thought was catchy. Then I would try to write a first sentence, a lead, that was attractive and then I put my mind to thinking, "Well, if I've got them this far, can I write a second sentence that will keep their attention?" And then I would try to imagine how easy it easy for them to stop reading and have a little contest with myself to see how long I could hold them. I would hide the statistical material you had to use because it was usually boring. Hide it in some subordinate clause somewhere and see if I could hang onto them a little longer.


I ran into copy editors later in my life who would want to break me of a habit I formed in those days. I like to start sentences, paragraphs even, with "and" or "but." No, that's a conjunction. You can't start sentence with a conjunction. The reason I had that habit is I'd be in the middle of a long passage and I say, "Oh boy, I'm going to lose them, but if I start the next sentence with 'and' or 'but,' it's like I've signaled this is a continuing thought. It's rude to let go. Now, you can't stop now." And I would really work at trying to see how long I could hold a reader and it made my writing much, much better I think and I've never seen that directly taught in journalism class, but it made my columns, when I later on became a columnist, made those work much better. And to this day, one of the great compliments for me is to have a reader say, "I liked what you had to say yesterday and I particularly liked the way you ended it. You went all the way and that was so beautiful."


BOND: Now, you talk about the Recorder as a J school, but what other parts of your education besides this grounding in grammar, what other parts of your education led to this career? Is it the multiplicity? I've heard you talk about your multiplicity of interests and how that made you a good reporter because you're interested in so many things. Is that -- ?


RASPBERRY: Yeah, I think was never consciously aware of all of these things and maybe I'm a little bit surprised that everybody doesn't have a similar multiplicity of interests. You know, for some people, it's sufficient to describe my work for forty years as that of a black columnist. Well, it's most assuredly that, because I'm a black American. I'm a Southern-born American. I don't doubt that that influences who I am and what I think and how I feel. I'm male. That matters in how you see things. I'm a son and I'm a parent. That matters in how you see life. The things that strike you as important. The father of a son and daughters. That matters -- so I couldn't begin to parcel out, you know, the things that -- the pieces of me that go into the work I do and have done because it's -- you know, after all these years, it's seamless. You are who you are.


I don't know where your political views come from. You can't say they come from experience because people who have the same experience reach very different notions about politics. I don't know what combinations of things lead me to believe that certain values are better for me than for others, that certain things seem more interesting than others. I don't know. It's the reason I can't write my life story. I can't figure all this out.