Lessons learned from a longtime journalist

By Joe Sheller / Guest Column

On Wikipedia, “Rick Smith” might refer to a Canadian environmentalist, an American football coach or even a member of a British electronic band called “Underworld,” among nine possibilities. None of the possibilities refers to the Rick Smith whose name was a mainstay of news in The Corridor.

With little fanfare, after decades of work, Gazette city hall reporter Rick Smith recently retired. I suppose it was his choice to slip away quietly, but it’s mine to note the change.

Mr. Smith was a prolific local journalist. For example, I assigned one of my Mount Mercy University reporting classes to cover a Cedar Rapids City Council meeting in the fall of 2012, and Mr. Smith agreed to visit the class days before the meeting. He shared his thoughts with students about what they should watch for. Afterward, it was startling to compare the 200-300 words each student produced with the lengthy three stories Mr. Smith wrote, occupying, as I recall, most of page three of the next morning’s newspaper.

I think the advice he offered to the class is good for many professional writing circumstances. It’s a decent list of rules for public relations or marketing communications, for example. Here is my paraphrase of three of the points he made:

Know that what happens at a council meeting is part of an ongoing narrative. At the time of this particular meeting, tax incentives for The Fountains development at Edgewood Road and Blairs Ferry Road in northeast Cedar Rapids were a hot issue, but as Mr. Smith pointed out to the class, the tax question is part of a larger and complicated policy discussion on appropriate economic incentives. To write about this vote at this meeting, a reporter must have some sense of how it fits into that bigger picture — and fitting ideas into ongoing narratives is a universal writing challenge.

Be aware that a council meeting is always theater. Those at a meeting, especially elected officials and government employees, know they are acting on a public stage. The fact that nine city council members want to be heard when something significant happens is not unimportant to note, but much of what is said is scripted and planned and intentional—and not always touching the heart of the matter. Again, any writer who wants to write well in any circumstance has to discern the showbiz from the reality.

Keep writing short. Mr. Smith told my class that if he were the professor, a criterion for this assignment’s grade would be: “See how short you can make it.” Ironic, perhaps, when he wrote so much more than my students did, but then again, he only wrote more because he understood more of the news from the meeting. An effective writer will be as concise as possible, without leaving out key information.

There are others who have noted Mr. Smith’s retirement. Earlier in February, I ran into Lyle Muller, executive director and editor at The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism in Iowa City. We were at the Iowa Newspaper Association Convention in Des Moines.

I asked him about Mr. Smith. Mr. Muller, a former editor of The Gazette, said he thought Mr. Smith sometimes knew more about the intricacies of local government than some of the people in local government.

It’s a sentiment that was also echoed in a January Facebook post by Dale Todd, former Cedar Rapids City Council member. “He could separate the spin and the hype from the real story…He was good, as good as they come,” Mr. Todd wrote about Mr. Smith.

I didn’t know Mr. Smith well. I only encountered him now and then, and had the pleasure to host him just once in class. But I knew his name from reading his stories.

It’s fashionable to dismiss the media as all bluster and bias — but there is a core in the media of quiet, dedicated journalists who aren’t grinding an ax or pushing an agenda, but rather are helping us peek behind the curtain and see who is running the levers in Oz — or Cedar Rapids.

I know The Gazette is still covering local government. But, Mr. Smith had experience and expertise that will take years to replace. So, from me, a tip of the hat to a local media figure whose byline will be missed by many Corridor news consumers.