I began my newspaper habit as a kid, following bylines the way many boys followed box scores. In high school, when I was invited to a weekend-long student journalism conference featuring Ed Anderson, I quickly agreed.
I knew Ed as The Times-Picayune reporter who wrote lots of stories about city government before moving to the Picayune’s capitol bureau in Baton Rouge. He seemed like the kind of newspaperman I wanted to be.
I’d written a few stories for my high school paper and a small weekly, and I brought along a stack of them to share with Ed. I couldn’t wait for him to tell me what a genius I was.
Ed approached me the next morning with my articles in hand. They were bright red, as if he’d used them to bludgeon someone to death. The only casualty, as it turned out, was my adolescent ego. With an editing marker, Ed had circled every sentence that was unclear, overwrought, self-indulgent. I was then in the midst of what might be called my high baroque period of composition, churning out prose adorned with elaborate ornament and devious complexity. Ed quietly suggested that for a newspaper writer, simple English would do.
He walked me through every line of every story, showing me what I had done, then what I should have done. I left our session feeling humbled but inspired. In critiquing my work, rather than blandly patting me on the back, Ed had shown me that he took me seriously and that he took the craft of journalism seriously, too. From him, I got my first deep sense that newspapering could be not only a job but a calling.
Ed believed that newspaper writing should call attention to the subject, not the writer.
The current fashion in personality-driven journalism, in which reporters are encouraged to develop their own “brand,” was alien to him.
I’m told that Ed disliked being assigned “thought pieces,” those lengthy interpretive articles, usually reserved for the Sunday paper, which aspire to tell readers What It All Means. He preferred the daily grind of the government beat, assuming that if readers knew who did what and who said what, they could fathom the big picture for themselves.
I followed Ed into newspapering, and we stayed in touch.
A few weeks ago, after he fell ill with the cancer and related complications that would soon claim his life, I visited him in the hospital. Calmly, he related his prognosis and his odds for survival.
That was just like Ed, I thought — the man with a true journalist’s gift for seeing things just as they are, not as we would wish them to be.
It is often the curse of growing up that in becoming adults, we have to leave the idols of our youth behind. But as I reminded Ed not long before his death, he remained my hero to the end.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.