Peter Copeland Talks About Writing About Journalism

Peter Copeland is a renowned reporter, having worked for nearly forty years covering everything from the local crime beat to dangerous foreign skirmishes. His latest book, Finding the News, is part-biography and part-primer; in it, Copeland shares what his years of experience in the field investigating stories have taught him about the noble profession of journalist.

Two journalists hand a finished newspaper to an editor sitting at a typewriter.

When I was a young reporter, I learned most everything from more experienced people in the business. Good editors and other reporters, even ones from competing news organizations, trained me in the craft. Sometimes, competing journalists taught me by scooping me on a big story; its the kind of stinging lesson you remember forever. I had studied political science rather than journalism in college, so on-the-job training was even more important to me than to my peers with journalism degrees.

The first draft of my book, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, focused on the “adventures” of being a foreign correspondent rather than on what I had learned about journalism. My hope was that young people would see the lessons implicit in the adventures. An early reader, however, asked me, houldn’t the lessons be clearly stated, so that a new generation of journalists could learn from them?

To do some research on this question, I went back and reread some of my favorite reporter memoirs and studied how they told the stories-behind-the-stories that went into newspapers.

Cover of Buying the Night Flight by Georgie Anne Geyer.

I have a signed copy of Georgie Anne Geyer’s Buying the Night Flight: The Autobiography of a Woman Foreign Correspondent. A Chicagoan like me, “Gee Gee” fell in love with Latin America like I did. She covered wars, coups, and revolutions and made them seem real to readers back home. Geyer wrote about the tribe of foreign correspondents this way: “Our odd little group of wanderers and seekers-after-little-truths was quite simply the most splendid set of princely misfits I have ever known.”  Geyer was one of the first women in this club, and she wrote about the struggle to be a good reporter, and to be her true self.

Cover of The Good Times by Russell Baker.

Russell Baker’s The Good Times has a kind of “aw-shucks” tone that belies what a great writer he was. Baker came up through the newspaper ranks and became a powerful journalist in Washington. There were times of self-doubt, however, such as when he covered Congress, which often meant hanging out in hallways outside closed hearing rooms: “I spend my life sitting on marble floors,” he wrote, “waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.”

Cover of Here Is Your War by Ernie Pyle.

The great one was Ernie Pyle. He was from my grandfather’s generation, and I did not know about him until I joined Scripps Howard, the company that had sent Pyle to cover World War II. Pyle did not sleep in fancy hotels and interview generals on the grand strategy. He slept on the ground for weeks at a time to live with the “grunts,” the toughest soldiers of the infantry.

My copy of Here Is Your War is yellowed with age. “In the magazines war seemed romantic and exciting, full of heroics and vitality,” Pyle wrote. “I saw instead men suffering and wishing they were somewhere else . . . All of them desperately hungry for somebody to talk to beside themselves . . . cold and fairly dirty, just toiling from day to day in a world full of insecurity, discomfort, homesickness, and a dulled sense of danger.”

After reporting on wars around the world, I found Pyle’s description as good as any. He covered combat more dangerous than anything I ever witnessed and was away from home for far longer periods. Pyle was killed covering a story on a small island in the Pacific during the Battle of Okinawa. He was 44 years old.

Peter Copeland, in aviator goggles, stands in front of several soldiers.

After reviewing my old copies of Geyer, Baker, and Pyle, I went back to my manuscript and fleshed out some of the things I had learned about journalism. I kept in the adventures, but I added some analysis, and just maybe, some wisdom. Once again, I learned an important lesson from the reporters who came before me.

I finished my own book with a one-page list of very specific “lessons learned” about journalism, which I hope some young reporter will tear out, mark up with her own thoughts, and post in her cubicle.

Photo of a smiling Peter Copeland.
Photo by George Hager

Peter Copeland has been a journalist and author for nearly forty years. He is former editor and general manager of Scripps Howard News Service and is coauthor of four books, including Living with Our Genes and The Science of Desire.

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