L.A. Times journalist Doug Smith discussed his family’s legacy at the newspaper and talked writing tips with High School Insider summer interns Thursday. From his dimly lit office room, beside his robustly decorated bookcase and video-game invested grandson, Smith offered interview tips and elements of his father’s writing style to the eager, attentive interns.
Smith’s wisdom comes from more than 50 years of experience working for the L.A. Times. However, his family ties to the company stretch to before his birth. His father Jack Smith was a widely recognized journalist whose columns ran in the L.A. Times for 37 years.
Doug and his brother Curt established a fund in their father’s name that has supported literacy for decades and the L.A. Times High School Insider internship program for three years. It allows interns to share stories from their communities in the style of Jack Smith.
“Between me and my dad, we’re getting close to having 100 years of investment in the L.A. Times. He loved the institution and it gives a long satisfaction that the institution is still vigorous,” he said.
Because of his father’s prominence within the journalism community, Smith’s history with the Times started when he was a child. He was often featured in his father’s columns before an audience of avid readers. His first appearance in a column was around the age of 12, he said.
“It was about how I liked collecting bugs as a hobby and how somehow they ended up getting loose in the house,” Smith said. “He ended up writing it for years and years about his family. His family became a metaphor for suburban Los Angeles.”
Smith emphasized the importance of determining the topic of a story and conveying it to the readers concisely. Speaking from years of conducting both successful and unsuccessful interviews, Smith said it’s necessary to know how the interview will contribute to the story. If you think of interviews as strategic events, your reporting will be productive, he said.
“When you get done with a story, the readers have to know what the story was about,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things about stories, especially if you’re just starting out.”
Smith started his journalism career as a desk assistant in 1970 in a position previously referred to as the copy boy. Wanting to grow his writing skills as a reporter, he then gained experience in the sports, suburban and metro sections. After exploring different beats, he spent the next 10 years of his career as a data editor.
Throughout his years at the Times, Smith witnessed the physical and cultural progression of the newspaper. The loud, bulky, lead-tainted machines of yesteryear were slowly replaced by the more digital tools of today, he said.
Reminiscing on his time as an editorial assistant, Smith remembers the linotype machines — large typesetting machines which, by melting and reforming lead, produced lines of words as strips of metal for newspaper publishing.
“Sometimes right on deadline you had to take a copy directly to the linotype operator. And so, I would be back in this environmental noise and acrid lead smell,” Smith said.
As technology progressed, the once-loud newsrooms became silent from the lack of mechanical noise to speak over. Smith recalled the days when the newsroom was full of the noise of typewriters, discussions and phone interviews.
He said the lack of noise in newsrooms has made learning harder for new journalists, as opportunities to overhear loud phone interviews have become limited.
“The way you learn from other people, like how to conduct interviews over the telephone, is a real art,” he said. “There were some, if you listened to them long enough, their telephone interview was like a basketball game which had momentum, shifts and an end line.”
Smith ended the talk with advice to the interns for their future stories. He said features should be descriptive and the readers should be able to visualize the characters in the scenes.
“A story needs to be about something important,” he said. “But being important doesn’t mean it’s about a superstar athlete, the mayor or the president. The importance comes from the way the information in the story interacts with the readers.”