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5 lessons from a 97-year-old style guide

I like old newspaper style guides. I recently picked up The Detroit News’ from 1918. A lot of it looks familiar, with rules for headline, punctuation and capitalization. (It’s good to know editors have always been trying to ban writers from using certain words and phrases.) But unlike the AP or other contemporary style guides, there’s also a lot of advice for reporters and editors — much of it surprisingly relevant.

Mediums change, good journalism doesn’t. Here are my top five:

1 Self-promotion: “It is not necessary to tell the people that we are honest, or bright, or alert, or that a story appeared exclusively in our paper. If true, the public will find it out. An honest man does not need to advertise his honesty.”

2 Good reporting: “Nature makes facts more interesting than any reporter can imagine them. There is an interesting feature in every story, if you will dig it out. If you don’t get it, it is because you don’t dig deep enough.”

3 Enterprise reporting: “Drill yourself into searching for facts; almost anybody can write a story—it takes real brains and resourcefulness to get one.”

4 Chasing exclusives: “Do not look on newspaper work as a ‘game,’ of pitilessly printing that on which you are only half informed, for the mere sake of beating some other paper; but take it rather as a serious, constructive work in which you are to use all your energy and diligence to get all the worth-while information for your readers at the earliest possible moment.”

5 Corrections: “If you make an error you have two duties to perform—one to the person misrepresented and one to your reading public. Never leave the reader of The News misinformed on any subject. If you wrongfully write that a man has done something that he did not do, or has said something that he did not say, you do him an injustice—that’s one. But you also do thousands of readers an injustice, leaving them misinformed as to the character of the man dealt with. Corrections should never be made grudgingly. Always make them cheerfully, fully, and in larger type than the error, if there is any difference.”