“When news comes at me, I go the other way,” said reporter Barry Newman. Rarely in a newsroom, the humor writer bucked trends as he pounded his peculiar vision into stories that qualified, on some level, as “news.” When other journalists went south to cover immigration on the Mexican border, he did the opposite, heading north to investigate the empty Canadian-American line. Now retired, the Pulitzer Prize nominee started as a copy boy at the New York Times before he began his unusual 43-year run at the Wall Street Journal in 1970. Nicknamed “King of the A-hed,” he’s legendary for his 400 quirky front page features. Producing comical but sophisticated narratives like “Some Wine With Your White Castle [Slider]?” in over 65 countries and most U.S. States, he established his own newspaper brand of creative nonfiction, decades before it had a fancy name.
Newman’s new book, News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories, reveals the craft behind his favorite essays. His publisher, CUNY Journalism Press, launched in 2012, in conjunction with the independent publishing house OR Books. Their mission is to put out books by, for, and about journalists that might not otherwise be published in the commercial marketplace.
At a recent interview in Greenwich Village, the 68-year-old author discussed traveling the world, the secrets of his longevity at the Wall Street Journal, and the story he could never get.
Jessica Milliken: You studied history at Union College, then law at NYU. But you’ve never worked as a lawyer. You grew up in New York, but what inspired you to become a writer?
Barry Newman: My parents believed in the glamour of Hollywood. My mother was in the movie business during the ’30s and traveled often. She influenced my notion of adventure. As a college sophomore, I became editor of the student newspaper, which may have reflected my incredible talent. But I think two juniors were feuding and the editor didn’t want to put either of them in charge, so I won by default. I did a profile of a bell ringer and it wasn’t until someone said it was “well done” that I had any idea I could write. My father would have loved if I’d been a real estate lawyer, yet doing stories for a newspaper from across the world seemed more glamorous to me.
JM: You started as a copyboy at the New York Times, then wrote pieces exploring the Dingo Fence in Australia, McDonalds in Singapore, and Russian and Turkish baths. How did your New Yorker-type articles wind up on page one of the Wall Street Journal?
BN: The Journal is more American than most New York papers. The people there were raw boned, dry-whited Midwesterners. They introduced me to their sensibility and it influenced the stories I did. I’d describe it as ironic distance, amused detachment, elegant understatement. I found my voice writing what’s known as an A-hed, which is humorous journalistic reporting.
JM: At 29 you left to report overseas for 20 years. You’ve been back in New York now for 19 years, and have a wife and daughter. Was it hard to retire?
BN: In America, everyone wants to talk on the phone and doesn’t want to be interrupted because they are busy. Thing is, I want to be there when people are busy, because whatever they’re busy doing is usually something I’d want to write about. I liked doing stories that way. As a white male, I’ve been stereotyped more in parts of New York than anywhere else in the world. Overseas no one cared where I was from or what I did. I’ve talked to everyone from the wealthiest aristocrats in France to the poorest slums in Brazil. The beauty of being an outsider is that no one can cast you.
JM: Is there anyone you wanted to do a story on but couldn’t?
BN: The CIA. I’ve tried a couple of times. When I was in Australia, they supposedly had a base around this place called Alice Springs. I pretended I was a teacher in order to speak with them. I learned it’s always a mistake to pretend you are someone else, especially with the CIA.
JM: In your goodbye roast, your editor of 32 years, David Sanford, said: “Like a clever five-year-old, Barry Newman likes to test limits and pitch fits.”
BN: David cares about accuracy. I hear music. We’d meet in the middle. He’d ask plain questions, I’d insert poetic answers. David didn’t just edit my copy, he contained my impulses. I tried to play inside the Journal’s creative sandbox. My reward was unimaginable freedom to travel and write for a publication that multiplied my every keystroke two million times. You can’t do that without copy editors. You can’t do it without subjects opening their lives to you, when all you open is a notebook. Getting colorful stories is like swimming across the English Channel. You can’t do it alone.
JM: You won the Overseas Press Club award for explanatory journalism and the National Press Club Award for humor writing. Who were your literary influences?
BN: My favorite is E.B. White. I love his elegant style. I also admire Meyer Berger, who wrote the first “About New York” column in the Times. Maeve Brennan, who wrote the “Long-Winded Lady Talkers” in the New Yorker fascinated me. She rarely interviewed anyone and just sat in restaurants listening to conversations. I like writers who take something ordinary, like being stuck in an elevator, and beautifully expand it.
JM: News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories isn’t a how-to guide, but rather a collection of your essays with commentary. What was your experience authoring a book through an independent press?
BN: I am pleased. Giving classes at CUNY, I would walk through a whole story beginning to end. A few years ago, Tim Harper, who invited me to teach, said he was starting a new press. I didn’t want to do a book. But he came up with the idea of putting together my best stories and giving instructions for my methods of craft to show students I wanted to build a collection and show self-analysis. So my book rocks back and forth between story and essay. Writers evolve their own habits and methodologies. I didn’t go to journalism school and I’m no student of how-to-manuals. I have dipped into the Paris Review’s “Writers as Work” series, where great novelists answer questions about how many words they write in a day, which Bible verses get them started, and whether doodling helps. My drawback in reading interviews with great novelists is that I haven’t read enough of their great novels. My hope for News To Me was that reporters and writers—including would-be journalists— could use the things I’ve learned to make their own work better, and possibly fun.
JM: Will you share a prose trick?
BN: The biggest challenge is the jump: getting the reader to flip the page. In my foreskin restoration story, I measured the column length in the Journal, and set up the paragraphs so just as the man unzipped his trousers, you needed to turn the page.
JM: What advice do you give to anyone who wants to be a better storyteller?
BN: My advice is get out of the office. Stop staring at your screen. Walk around, look at things, talk to people. Hang out with your family. The world is not on the Internet. Keep your eyes open. Once you get past peoples barriers you can learn something new, and gain a friend.