Bob Baker's Newsthinking: a great book

I can't too highly recommend the latest edition (or any edition you can find) of Bob Baker's classic book on the news writer's craft: Newsthinking: The Secret of Making Your Facts Fall into Place.
I recommend it to everybody: working news writers, unworking news writers, editors, columnists, bloggers -- even publishers -- and perhaps most of all to readers of journalism. Whatever your relationship to the craft of journalism is, reading Newsthinking will increase your enjoyment of it.
Yes. Enjoyment. After reading Newsthinking, whether you write news, edit it or just read it, you'll have an appreciation for this highly disciplined, dramatic craft.
Why? Because Baker takes you into the middle of the play, the core of the creation of better stories -- the mental processes good reporters go through from the assignment of the story to the moment they ship it to the editor's computer.
I offer an account of my own brief career as a newsman and the impact Newsthinking had on me, not for its great depth of understanding of the craft of journalism, but because it is the only story I know.
I read an earlier edition of Newsthinking at a time when I was disgusted. In addition to the usual stresses and strains of any newsroom, I had a very serious problem: I was bored with my own writing. I suppose I was tired of filling in the outline of a pyramid every day. I'd buried my own hypotheses about what I was covering. The stories were writing themselves, badly, and none were wiser for reading them. The whole idea of becoming the "oldest cub reporter in the history of modern journalism" was beginning to become a bad joke.  
From the first paragraphs of Newsthinking on, I knew Baker was writing directly to me on behalf of the reader, demanding that I get into my stories, improve them, and giving me guidance on how to do so. The biggest thing that hit me in Baker's early chapters was that I was being urged directly not to give up on my initial sense of what might be in the story, even if it were only the vaguest, least articulate feeling.
I did it, starting with not abandoning my own tentative opinions on what might be out there to discover. Lo and behold, sometimes it was there. If it wasn't, that made another kind of interesting story. My stories got richer. I was writing for readers, not out of some formula authorized by the professors. I discovered the ability to organize more facts and to shape stories to the events rather than the other way around.
Writing for readers is an extraordinarily complex thing to even describe. I think it begins with one's own initial impressions of a story. If you can stick with them, let the facts prove or disprove them, you will remain closer to the reader because your first impressions aren't that different from those of the reader picking up a paper, glancing over a headline and maybe your lead, and deciding if the story relates to anything she might be interested in. Why should she care if her local wastewater treatment plant is under a state cease-and-desist order? It could be in the impact of the order for her future utility bill when the city upgrades and expands the plant.
At first, I was nervous about presenting these “Newsthinking” stories to editors. However, one day after I'd been reading Newsthinking for a few months (I still hadn't finished it), I got complete confirmation I was on the right path as a reporter.
The story was full of rage and sorrow. The rage was provided by the former chief of a century-old volunteer fire department that had been rudely shoved aside by developer interests and their pet supervisor in favor of a county-wide rural fire department. A fire broke out in a mobile home, about a mile away from the closed volunteer fire-department, two weeks after the department had been closed down. The new fire department took 40 minutes to get to the scene, by which time a man and two dogs inside the mobile home had died. There were other enraging matters concerning how the fire was fought once the new crew did arrive.
The sorrow came from the children in the mobile home park, who loved the man and his dogs. He was a Vietnam veteran, by all accounts a gentle, shambling drunk.. But he bought some treats for the kids as well as his beer at the market. And the kids loved his two friendly dogs.
He'd apparently fallen asleep with something on the stove.
The editor said he wanted no more than 20 (column) inches on it. I wrote it and apprehensively turned it in, saying it ran to 33 inches and would he suggest where to cut it. He read it and said it flowed like a 15-inch story and not to cut any of it.
For those of you who aren't or haven't been reporters, editors do not as a rule give you a vote of confidence like that. A door opened that day because, in addition to working hard to get the facts, I had organized them to tell a gripping story. The editor knew that people would read all 33 of those inches. We went on to do other, even longer stories on complex issues arising from the rapid urban development of a rural region. Because I did not give up on my feeling that the pace of development was causing social disruption despite the constant drone of official propaganda to the contrary, we were able to produce stories that included a richer complex of fact and incident that appealed to our readership base, who were asking the same questions.
This is just one ex-reporter's testimony. Working for two small newspapers inundated daily with developer flak during the run-up to the grand speculative real estate boom, I didn't get out from under the politics of local realtors by reading tomes of political science; I studied the craft of journalism as presented by Bob Baker in Newsthinking: The Secret of Making Your Facts Fall into Place.
Today, reporters are working under more severe pressures than in that period.. The number of empty desks is rapidly growing in newsrooms all across the nation. It isn't an environment conducive to the highest quality of work, at least if job security means anything. Baker wrote his book in a heyday of journalism. Now, we are in a very dark period. But the craft still produces gems of the highest quality. The following, by Dan Morain, shows both the deft touch of a great reporter in an editorial that echoes the origins of the craft in pamphleteering. What is great about this piece is that it does not descend to reporting on an important political issue as if handicapping the Daily Double at Pimlico. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, subject of the piece, habitually talks to the press as if he had just been interrupted from reading his Racing Form.  
Bill Hatch
Merced Sun-Star
Dan Morain: Why is Cardoza waffling?...Dan Morain is an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee.
ATWATER -- The reality of the nation's health care crisis has struck hard at the Bellevue Bowl, a bar and bowling alley that has been owned by the same family for 50 years.
Owner Bob Cardoza got word that the premium for the health insurance policy for his family and a few key employees is jumping 75 percent. He made sure his congressman heard about it.
The congressman happens to be Bob's younger brother, Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat from Merced.
Cardoza and his fellow Central Valley Democrat, Rep. Jim Costa, of Fresno, are two of the holdouts on historic health care legislation heading for a pivotal vote later this week.
They should be among the first to sign onto the bill, given the need for health care in their districts. But that they are mulling means they are torn or very savvy -- or, most likely, that they are both.
"How we pay for it is of grave concern to me," Cardoza told me Tuesday. "My constituents are lukewarm because if it costs them a dime more, they're stretched."
Cardoza is seeking a medical school at UC Merced. Costa is using the opportunity to leverage assurances from the Obama administration of more water from the federal government for farmers in his district.
The brinksmanship will continue up to the vote. But it shouldn't. There may be no part of the nation that needs a health care overhaul more than the San Joaquin Valley. Both congressmen surely know that.
Cardoza, in particular, is steeped in the issue. His wife is a physician, and he has been following the issue since he was a Capitol Hill intern 30 years ago and was directed to monitor health care hearings held by late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Cardoza's district covers one of the most distressed regions in America, from Stockton, a centers of the home foreclosure crisis, south to Modesto, Madera and Fresno.
Huge numbers of his constituents are out of work. Unemployment rates in counties he represents range from 16.6 percent to 21.7 percent. Nearly 24 percent of the people in Madera County population have no health insurance. Teen birth rates are high and a Merced hospital recently shuttered its neonatal unit.
But make a few stops along Highway 99, and it becomes clear why the vote is tough for a San Joaquin Valley Democrat.
Danny Prather used to have insurance, back when he worked as an auto mechanic and later a cable splicer.
Now he is MIA. The term doesn't mean he is missing in action, though there are tragic similarities. He is a medically indigent adult, meaning he has no health coverage, and must go to the place of last resort, the Health Service Agency clinic of Stanislaus County.
Prather has diabetes and depression and has had heart attacks and strokes. He is 55. A friend lets him sleep on her couch. Otherwise, he'd be at the homeless encampment over by the creek bed.
"I thought about killing myself," Prather said, standing front of the sprawling clinic in an old hospital across from a cemetery on Scenic Drive in Modesto.
Prather would benefit from the health care bill. His bills would be paid partly by the federal government, and he would have greater access to care. But like many potential beneficiaries, he shrugged.
"It's just another way for politicians to control us," Prather said.
In Atwater, at the Bellevue Bowl, Ronald Roberts sips an O'Douls. He has a pacemaker and survived prostate cancer. At 74, the retired Air Force sergeant doesn't worry about health insurance for himself.
But politicians, including Cardoza, need to do what is best for the people.
"We're the richest country in the world and we don't take care of our own," he said.
Then there is Bellevue owner Bob Cardoza. He worries about what he will do if he can't find a new policy, and must come up with the extra 75 percent. Business is not exactly booming.
"What I see really concerns me," the congressman's older brother says.
As the vote nears, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is lining up votes. If Cardoza doesn't vote for the bill, he can kiss his coveted spot on the House Rules Committee good-bye.
President Obama offers a sweetener -- money in his budget that could be used to create a medical school at UC Merced, in the heart of Cardoza's district. That too could disappear.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is airing ads in his district, warning that the legislation will drive up prices and cost jobs.
But a congressman's job security is no excuse. The vote may be tough. But there may not be another opportunity like this again for a generation.