Jack Hart: Writing coach extraordinaire

By Will Mari –

On his way to work a few years ago, Jack Hart saw a man lying on the sidewalk, not an uncommon sight in Portland, with its large population of homeless people. But the managing editor of The Oregonian had a gut feeling that something was wrong. He rolled the unconscious man over and was shocked to see that it was one of his editors. Hart spotted a reporter on his way to work and together they performed CPR on the man. Hart did chest compressions. Their quick action saved a coworker’s life.

“Jack is a take-charge kind of guy, highly organized and decisive,” said fellow managing editor Therese Bottomly. And while the action-oriented Hart recently retired from the paper, he leaves behind a legacy of journalism achievement few can rival.

Hart, 61, is a 1968 alumnus of the UW’s journalism program. He took a beginning news writing class about halfway through his time at the UW “just to fulfill a distribution requirement,” he said. In the process, he ran into legendary communications Prof. Henry Ladd Smith. He “changed my life,” said Hart.

Smith had been the editor of The Cleveland Press and was a distinguished press historian. Hart said that Smith, then in his 60s, had a wry sense of humor, and Hart took an immediate personal liking to him.

“He flagged me in the hall as I walked by and said, ‘hey Hart! Got a cigarette? Come in and have a cup of tea,’” Hart recalled. “One day [in Smith’s office], he said, ‘I’m wondering what that damn thing is,’” gesturing to the giant, self-erecting construction crane looming over the top of nearby Padelford Hall. “He said, ‘find out what that damn thing is.’”

Hart checked it out and wrote a story on the contraption that he turned in for Smith’s class. He got up the next morning and looked at The Daily to see that he had made the front page.

“I thought, ‘gee, this is pretty neat.’ So I decided I’d keep doing that.”

Hart was hooked, and he spent the rest of his time at the UW studying journalism. He worked for The Daily, winning a Hearst Journalism Award for a story on marijuana sales on campus.

Hart did ROTC so he wouldn’t get drafted right out of school, and supportive UW faculty helped him secure a full-ride fellowship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he enrolled in the journalism Ph.D. program. Hart studied mass communications, journalism history and law.

After a few years, he got a job as a journalism instructor at California State University-Northridge while he finished his dissertation, receiving his Ph.D. in 1975. He soon moved north to a position at the University of Oregon. He became a tenured associate professor, teaching the news-editorial sequence. He also did some crime reporting for The Eugene Register-Guard on the side.

This got him interested in working for a large daily newspaper. When a spot for a general assignment reporter at The Oregonian opened up in 1981, he went for it, taking a leave of absence from the university.

“I think that’s one of the best jobs in journalism, because it’s a different assignment every day, and it really educates you about the world,” he said. Hart worked at The Oregonian for a year, becoming the arts and leisure editor, and then the editor of the new Sunday magazine, Northwest, “which had all kinds of possibilities,” he said.

In fact, he felt it had enough possibility that he resigned his teaching position in 1983 to concentrate full time on journalism, but not just any kind of journalism.

“Journalism through the 1950s and 1960s was pretty rote,” he said. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, journalists wrote original, creative nonfiction, including narrative storytelling. But that changed after the war, Hart said. Journalism by the late 1970s and early 1980s was stuck in a stylistic rut.

“Most newspapers were pretty much straight-ahead, straight news publications, dominated by inverted-pyramid news stories. Relatively dull, actually,” he said

The Oregonian was no exception, and was “especially mediocre at that point,” he said. Hart wanted to change that.

Armed with a new heat-set, offset press, and a $500,000 freelance budget (quite substantial for the time), Hart hired writers from around the Northwest.

Working with journalists who wanted to try magazine writing, Hart brought back old-school, creative journalism, and focused on the development of narrative journalism.

That’s not to say that everyone was enthusiastic about this attempt to break the mold.

“In the main newsroom, there were some arched eyebrows … ‘what’s this effete, writing stuff going on over at the Sunday magazine?’” people asked.

But readers responded. After A1 and the metro front, it was the most popular part of the paper. It also received national recognition, launching the careers of writers such as Tom Hallman, Jr.

The Oregonian joined a national movement led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to improve journalistic writing. It was at this time that Dr. Roy Peter Clark became the country’s first dedicated writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times.

“We decided that we wanted one too, and that I was it,” said Hart. In 1989, he became the paper’s writing teacher. His job was to set up a training program for the staff, “so we could pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”

Tasked with working with writers and editors on larger projects, Hart also helped train the rank-and-file. Many writers were eager to learn. Some were not.

“There were some crusty, old reporter-types who were very skeptical,” he said. Hart recalled worked the night shift one evening on the city desk.

One of the stubborn curmudgeons was there.

“I started asking him questions about his story, the one that he was working on, and after a while he grinned and said, ‘this is some of that coaching s**t, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘yeah, what of it?’” The two continued talking and the reporter produced a good story, Hart said.

Things started to improve on an almost monthly as a result of Hart’s in-house training, and by the late 1990s, The Oregonian was a regional journalism powerhouse, recognized for Hart’s “baby” — narrative journalism. Hart spoke at national conferences and workshops, including the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.

He became one of the paper’s three managing editors in 1995, helping run the day-to-day operations of the paper. His primary job remained staff development, however. It paid off.

The Oregonian’s writers, working closely with Hart, won Pulitzers in 1999 (for explanatory journalism), 2001 (feature writing and public service), 2006 (editorial writing) and 2007 (breaking news reporting). The 1999 Pulitzer, the paper’s first in 40 years, went to Richard Read, who profiled the journey of a load of Northwest potatoes in a series of stories as it traveled from the Columbia Valley to the Port of Tacoma to Japan to a MacDonald’s in Singapore, all in an attempt to explain the Asian economic crisis then afflicting the Pacific Rim.

“That kind of stuff can be deadly to write about or read about,” he said. But that wasn’t the case with Read’s series. “It was a dynamite piece of writing,” said Hart, who was solo editor on the project.

For the next several years, Hart balanced his role as a managing editor and writing coach. He started gearing down toward retirement as an editor-at-large in early 2007, freeing him up to work with individual writers and specific projects. He retired formally in December 2007.

Hart is now focused on writing and teaching, promoting his book, A Writer’s Coach: an Editor’s Guide to Words that Work. With two more book projects in the oven, he’s keeping busy.

But he wants to take some time to hunt, fish, sail and ski, “before I’m too old to do all those things,” he said with a characteristic chuckle. He also wants to renovate his home on picturesque Raft Island near Gig Harbor, his “old family stumping ground,” and spend time with his three grown sons and one granddaughter.

Looking back, he said that the UW started his career well. “I think I got an excellent education,” he said. And even after working with Ivy Leaguers throughout his career, he said he never felt educationally disadvantaged.

His colleagues have high praise for him. “He made the leap into the newsroom, where in the last quarter century, he became one of the nation’s leading story editors and writing coaches,” said Dr. Roy Clark, who’s worked with Hart at the Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute since the 1980s. “Here was a man who could think, research, teach, edit and write.  That makes him, in baseball terms, a five-tool super star.”