Letter From the Ombudsman

On The Smart Set, journalism, sharks and mosquitoes.


in Archive


Allow me to introduce myself: I am the ombudsman of this new publication called The Smart Set, or more specifically, thesmartset.com. I’m not exactly sure why the editors approached me to take on this role. Or why they even need an ombudsman. Ombudsmen, in my opinion, are simply the flavor of the month. They hire an ombudsman at the New York Times and suddenly everyone wants an ombudsman. It’s the new hula-hoop craze if you ask me.

The editors say they’ve called on me because, according to them, I am the last living contributor to the original Smart Set, which ceased to exist around 1930. I wrote for all the other great magazines of that era, too, titles such as Saucy Stories, Action Stories, Breezy Stories, Snappy Stories, and Black Mask. But the editors didn’t want to hear about any of those titles.

The Smart Set: “The Magazine of Cleverness…The Aristocrat Among Magazines…The Only Magazine with an European Air,” edited from 1914 to 1923 by George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken. It was a fine magazine, publishing the early work of such talents as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Theodore Dreiser. Even though crotchety old Mencken in later years would call the magazine “the most dreadful piece of printing in New York.”

But that was Mencken. As everyone knows, he was always a real bastard. I’m still waiting for the $15 for my last contribution, a burlesque that really knocked their socks off. He told me the check was in the mail. This was 1922. Haven’t heard from him since. Is he still alive? If I ever see him again, I’ll punch him in the nose.

Ever since those halcyon days of The Smart Set in the Roaring Twenties I’ve been a newspaperman in southern New Jersey. When the editors of thesmartset.com called, I actually assumed it was because my decades of intrepid newspapering caught their attention. There isn’t even any room left in my trophy case for all the South Jersey Press Awards I’ve won — all for my legendary coverage of that beautiful region stretching from Pittsgrove to Buena Borough. (Incidentally, in South Jersey we don’t go in for that fancy Spanish pronunciation of Buena; we pronounce it the American way, “BUU-nuh.”)

I’m still a little unclear as to my role as ombudsman for The Smart Set. At a paper, my job would be to keep things honest and fair. You need a longtime newspaperman like me to do these things. When we do ombudsman duty at a regular broadsheet, here’s what we’ll do: If, say, a Doonesbury or Boondocks comic strip gets a little too political, and people complain, we’ll move it straight away from the Family Circus and over to the Op-Ed pages. See? Crisis averted.

Or maybe a gaggle of angry readers calls to say that coverage of the mosquito control commission is slanted. That’s when we’ll write a corrective column demanding more balanced reporting from the editorial staff. I am committed to the classic he-said/she-said school of journalism. If you’re going to give me a quote from the mosquito controllers…well, you’d better damn well also get a quote from the mosquitoes. That’s your balanced journalism, I say.

The editors of thesmartset.com have told me that this sort of ombudsmanship is not what they’re looking for.

At any rate, this new publication, thesmartset.com, is apparently some sort of World Wide Web outfit, though I’m not entirely certain. For one, I don’t own a computer, and never will, so I’ve not seen it. I’m a hot type fellow. Ink-stained hands for me. I always ask thesmartset.com’s editors to print everything out on nice 20 lb. bond, and then courier it over to me. They get huffy and always mumble something about my “large environmental footprint.” Whatever the hell that means.

A few observations about thesmartset.com staff. All I can say is that the editors here are of a different, softer generation than mine. Though, I have to say, one of them is not as young as he seems to think he is. This editor wears his hair shorn close so people can’t tell how bald he is — or so he thinks. This sort of chicanery would have been completely unacceptable in my day. Back then, newspapermen didn’t resort to those sorts of tricks. If we went bald, a combover would do just nicely for us, thank you.

Also, I must question the slovenly work attire of this crew. Newspapermen in my day wore suit and tie, and of course a fedora with a press card tucked firmly in the band. No fedoras at this Smart Set. I guess it’s a sign of the times, but deplorable all the same.

One note on publication deadlines. Back in my day, when something went to press, it went to press. And once that happened, we all retired to the nearest saloon for a few Manhattans. Occasionally, just to get the blood racing, someone would run in with a scoop and yell, “Stop the presses!” With this Smart Set outfit, however, deadlines are as elastic as the waistband of my underpants. These guys are always fiddling around with copy up until the last second. And when they’re finally ready, they just push a key and “publish.” Where’s the drama in that? Who wants to drink a Manhattan after that?

Now, about the editorial product.

Lot of first person here. I know, I know, this younger generation loves the first person. But back in my day, we never used it. If, for instance, you were sitting in a saloon on a Tuesday afternoon and a man walked in, looked you in the eye, pulled out a gun, and shot you in the face…well, the next day you’d be at your Remington typing, “A man carrying a firearm allegedly walked into a bar late Tuesday and shot a reporter in the face.”

There’s also an awful lot of opinionated reporting here as well. In my day, on the other hand, it was all objective. We were a lot more sure of ourselves and our objectivity and our version of the truth in those days. This younger generation and their subjectivity — again, soft is what I call it. Back then, we simply knew when to refer to subjects as “freedom fighters” or “guerillas,” “activists” or “protesters,” “patriots” or “commies.” And when we named a name, it stuck.

Now, I will dip into my mailbag and answer some questions sent to me by readers just like you.

Q: I’m a young journalist just graduating from journalism school. Do you have any advice for me?

A: Kid, there’s three things every journalist needs when he goes out on an assignment:

1) A pen. You’d be surprised how often young journalists forget this.

2) Paper. Though, as an experienced newspaperman I must say that even running out of paper won’t kill you. Just last week I was at a zoning board meeting and realized I’d forgotten my reporter’s notebook. Thinking quick, I saw a pile of photocopied meeting agendas, grabbed a handful of them, and just wrote my notes on the backside. Lucky for me very few members of the public showed up for the meeting! I had a lot of notes to take!

3) Breath mint. You’re going to be speaking with someone up close and personal. Do you think they really want to smell the three martinis you had for lunch?

Finally, let me pass on some wisdom I learned many decades ago during my early days in a newsroom. I was a real go-getter my first week on the job. I’d get into work really early — by 9:30 at the latest. After a couple days, I noticed that I was the only one in the newsroom at that hour. About noon, I asked one of the older reporters why I was the only in the office so early. He looked at me with a mix of disgust and pity. “Kid,” he said. “You can’t rush the news.”

Q: I’m a big fan of service journalism. Tips, info boxes, bulleted items, What To Do, If You Go, “news you can use” — I can never read enough of it. How does The Smart Set feel about service journalism?

A: Well, as a professional newspaperman, I have a strong commitment to service journalism. It’s what keeps the lights on and the presses running! Let me tell you about a classic piece of service journalism that ran in one of our competing newspapers in southern New Jersey.

A few summers ago, there was a shark attack at the Jersey Shore. A teenage surfer had his foot bitten by what experts believed was a baby great white shark. Luckily, even though he received 60 stitches, the boy survived and made a full recovery.

Now, shark attacks in New Jersey are rare. Exceedingly rare. Our competition ran a front-page article about the incident. The headline: “For some, ocean loses appeal after shark attack.” The subhead: “But others not as concerned and take the plunge into Atlantic.” The reporter quoted a mother with small children who was now afraid to let them go into the water. The reporter quoted other people who said they were not afraid of sharks and would indeed go back into the water. Good, hard-hitting stuff.

But alongside that article ran a one of the all-time greatest boxes of helpful tips: “WHAT TO DO: If you come near a shark.” Tip #1: “Don’t try to touch it.” Tip #2: “Get out of the water as quickly as possible.” Tip #5: “If a shark attacks you, the general rule is do whatever it takes to get away.”

I almost weeped when I saw that WHAT TO DO box. It was hard to top. We’d been scooped.

But to answer your specific question. Unfortunately, thesmartset.com generally despises service journalism. • 6 August 2007