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Homage to an editor who made me better.

Great editors, capable on both conceptual and technical levels, come few and far between.

My friend and former boss called from Ohio to report that a colleague had passed away. His name was Duane Croft and he had died of heart failure in Cleveland at age 69. He was a long-time editorial writer and editor at The Blade in Toledo - he served as associate editor, editorial director, and finally editorial page copy editor. He had retired a few years back to a cottage in Michigan.

Few people in journalism become rich and famous. And this has always been so. But today, as with opera or theater, the mega-stars are so omnipresent that they seem to crowd out the local lights.

A George Will or Bill Moyers raises the standard, but he may also obscure those who do good work in their own back yards. Other big-time journos are famous mostly for being famous and may distract readers from the work of people far more sober than themselves. (For some reason Patrick J. Buchanan comes to mind.)

Duane was not famous, and I think it was the last thing that would ever have been of interest to him. But he was one of those people recognized by his peers - both formally with awards and informally by word of mouth - as a devoted artisan.

For about a year and a half at The Blade, Duane was my editor. I wrote a weekly op-ed column that was part of his domain. At first he drove me crazy.

I thought he was picky and grumpy and painfully slow. I wondered why he couldn't just do his thing - fiddle with the column in whatever way - and leave me alone. When it came time to "work over this week's piece," I sometimes wanted to hide in a stairwell until he left for the day to catch his bus. (Always at the same time, of course.)

Well, he was all of those things. He was rigid as well as exacting, sometimes narrow-minded as well as clear-headed. He was also the best editor I have ever met.

One reason for his slowness was that he was trying to teach me things about word order, precision, syntax, and overwriting. Another was that he respected the writer and, assuming the writer was trying to do something serious, respected what the writer was trying to do.

If you were not serious about your work Duane - who was as fastidious and careful about time as he was about his desk, his dress, his fitness regime, his diet - had no time for you; you were cut off.

I was a young editorial writer still woefully sloppy about style and struggling to attain clean working copy, but Duane saw that I was serious about structure, expression, and content. So he gave me some of that precious time of his, a decision that took a while to appreciate.

Duane's ability as an editor derived first from his patience - the care he took with all things. But he also had an editor's one-two punch: He was an excellent copy reader. He was tidy and, with grammar, a local legend.

He also, to borrow from Charles Peters, "edited by ideas." Ideas mattered to him. The exchange of ideas mattered. Too many editorial pages now offer stands, positions, poses, but no ideas.

Good editors are rare, great editors exceedingly rare. It is almost unheard of for an editor to be as capable on the conceptual as on the technical level.

Duane was an empathetic editor. He had an ability you read and hear about but seldom see in real life: the ability to make the writer better at being him or herself.

Many in our business work as cookie-cutter editors: Everything that passes their desks winds up sounding the same colorless way, or sounding like the editor. Duane helped you make it sound like you, only better.

I think Duane had this sympathy because he was a writer first - a fine one who won some important awards for his editorials. At The Blade they used to tell stories about Duane working for hours and hours on his leads. Just the leads. He sometimes didn't get to the text until quitting time. Perfectionists suffer in daily journalism, and sometimes burn out. Duane virtually had to stop writing editorials for the sake of his health.

I find Duane's professionalism so touching because I can't think of many people in the business who care that much, who think it is that important.

A couple of dirty little secrets about journalism seldom get discussed, even within the profession. One is that, as my old publisher Joe Doster used to say, "There just aren't that many good ones." Another is that desire and dedication are probably about nine-tenths of what it takes to make a good journalist.

A third is that, despite all the professionalization and yuppification that has taken place in the newspaper business over the past 30 years, the senses of craft, vocation, excitement, privilege, and fraternity that once illuminated our work are growing more and more dim.

Not only are few rewrite editors, cranky wordsmiths, meticulous editors, or elegant editorialists around, but even fewer care.

Readers want color. The big newspaper chains want profits. You can have these things and fine writing and editing too, of course, but you won't if nobody cares about fine writing and editing.

Contemporary journalism is giving in to the turn toward conglomeration, mediocrity, and group-think that has ruined so much else that was valuable and fun in American life.

My dad and my grandfather were both retailers - this was at a time when you could make a living in retailing. Back then running a store was thought a fine thing to do. And there were standards: The product had to be of highest quality. Respect for the customer was a given. And one had pride in one's work.

Most people who work in retail stores today have no interest in the product, no loyalty to their employer (with reason), and no pride in their work, and they exude indifference or contempt for the public. One gets the idea they feel there is no honor in work that doesn't make you rich and famous.

A result of trends like celebrity journalism and chain journalism is that pride of craft has been greatly diminished. If you are not George Will, or at least a corporate vice president, what's the point?

For Duane Croft the point was words and ideas, not power, or ego, or careerism. One lesson of this gentle craftperson's professional life is that journalism cannot be a craft unless it is also a vocation.

NCEW member Keith C. Burris is editor of editorial pages for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Burris, Keith C.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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