Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Old school journalism & lessons learned June 22, 2021

In journalism school and early in my journalism career, I typed stories on a manual typewriter similar to this. MN Prairie Roots file photo.

IN A WINDOWLESS ROOM of Armstrong Hall on the campus of Mankato State University, I pounded out a fictional obituary on a manual typewriter.

The year was 1976. And I was learning the basics of newspaper reporting. Lesson number one: Always spell a person’s name correctly. Never assume. Ask for the spelling. There is no reporting sin worse than misspelling a name. I remembered that during my first reporting job out of college when I interviewed Dayle. Not Dale.

I learned from two of the best—Robert O. Shipman and Gladys B. Olson. They were old school journalists, determined to teach Woodward and Bernstein-hyped students how to gather facts and report with truth, accuracy and integrity. They taught the basics—how to write a strong lede, how to infuse interest into feature stories, how to get the story right…

But beyond that, they cared. Deeply. They cared about the roles newspapers play in communities. To report hard news. To share human interest stories. To inform. To keep tabs on government and schools and other groups entrusted with public monies and policies. To share and express opinions on the editorial page, considered the heart of a community newspaper. To publish obituaries. And much more.

A section of a feature I wrote about Mike Max, now a sports anchor at WCCO TV. MN Prairie Roots file photo.

All these decades later, I remember those lessons learned from Shipman, Olson and others who taught mass communication classes at what is today known as Minnesota State University, Mankato. I graduated in March 1978 and shortly thereafter started working as a newspaper reporter at a small town weekly, The Gaylord Hub. My career would also take me to full-time reporting jobs in Sleepy Eye, Mankato and Owatonna, and to a short-term assignment in Northfield with freelance work also tossed in the mix.

Through the years, I’ve maintained my passion for writing and grown my passion for photography. Even while raising three children, with minimal time to write. Yet, I’ve had no desire to return to the long and odd hours of working for a newspaper at low pay with the stress and pressure of deadlines and a public that criticizes more than values the free press.

Much has changed since I typed a fictional obit in Armstrong Hall on a manual typewriter. For one, technology. Two: Newspapers charge to publish obits. I still struggle with that change. But I understand given the declines in ad revenue. Three: Attitudes. The easily flung accusation of “fake news” simply angers me as does constant criticism of responsible media. “Don’t kill the messenger,” I advise those who target the media for reporting “only bad news.”

A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub. MN Prairie Roots file photo.

I wonder what Professors Shipman and Olson would teach students today. I expect they’d still focus on the basics. On accuracy and integrity and spelling names correctly.

While writing this post, I wanted to assure I spelled their names right, which led me to search online. It was then that I discovered some interesting facts about Olson, a petite spitfire of a woman. Shortly before she turned four, Gladys and her infant brother were orphaned as a result of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. Their parents died within 24 hours of each other, among more than 8,000 North Dakotans who died of influenza in 1919. The siblings were raised by their paternal grandparents. I wish I’d known this when Olson taught me how to become a good, decent and fair newspaper reporter.

From the front page of the Faribault Daily News. MN Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

Today, as I read Olson’s 2016 obit, I understand her backstory, what shaped her strength and resilience and kindness. The list of her accomplishments beyond journalism professor emphasizes service to others. She lived to age 101. That she died only four years before the COVID-19 pandemic is not lost on me. I’m thankful she didn’t have to endure another pandemic. I’m also thankful that she, and Robert Shipman, taught me old school journalism style. To write with fairness, integrity and accuracy. And to value the role of newspapers in a democracy.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


20 Responses to “Old school journalism & lessons learned”

  1. Larry Gavin Says:

    Super interesting post!

  2. Wonderful story, Audrey. Thank you for giving us another glimpse into your background and your story. 🙂

  3. Audrey you are an amazing writer, poet and photographer, I often find myself re-reading your pieces in the poetry books you have gifted me. It sounds like you had some great teachers, but I have a feeling you are a bit of a “natural”

  4. What a wonderful piece you just wrote!!! Really. What a way to honor good professional instructors.

    I miss (never thought I would ever say this.😂) typewriter days. I said many a nasty word during my college days in the 80’s as I typed research papers (with footnotes, references) until the wee hours of the morning it was due with a pile of paper in the floor of my mistyped sheets. Liquid paper was a blessing but didn’t fix it all. 😂
    Thanks for this escape from my day.

  5. Valerie Bollinger Says:

    This is very interesting Audrey. I liked hearing about your favorite teachers. What a great start to your writing career!

  6. Bernadette Arlene Thomasy Says:

    Your post brought back a lot of memories of the challenges of the typewriter days. My first years at the newspaper also were spent on the manual typewriter. I recall pasting the pages together in a long roll for the typesetter. Thanks for continuing to get out the message of the importance of the free and fair media; our country needs it more than ever right now.

  7. Sandra Says:

    Are you mentoring someone? Sounds like you should be. News, especially print, needs all the help available. Charging for obituaries made me very sad.

  8. Susan Ready Says:

    A nice tribute to the integrity of old-school journalism and how it has served you well. Adding your lovely photography is just the piece de resistance.

  9. Mark Winter Says:

    Thanks for the memories. I graduated the quarter after you. I had English classes in Armstrong.

    • You are welcome. It’s nice to “meet” another MSU grad who took classes in Armstrong. I just got my alumni magazine the other day and noted that I wouldn’t even recognize the campus with all the “new” buildings. Well, I guess it’s been a few years, uh, I mean decades.

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