The WVU School of Media reported the following last week: “Paul Atkins, a loyal WVU Alumnus and revered journalism professor, died on Tuesday, February 19, at the age of 95.”
Credit the reporter with following Atkins’ guidance for a “summary lead” of a news story—find the key facts, keep it short, make certain that it is clear.
Paul A. Atkins taught journalism at West Virginia University for 33 years and spent 12 years as faculty advisor for the Daily Athenaeum, the student newspaper. During that time, Atkins developed a reputation as a tough but fair professor who helped shape the careers of hundreds of reporters.
Atkins insisted on accuracy and was a stickler for details. John League, a student of Atkins in the 1970’s who went on to become the publisher of the Hagerstown (Maryland) Herald-Mail, remembered how he just missed out on his effort to get an “A” in Atkins’ class.
“The final project assignment sheet said the story must be submitted on white paper, not the yellow paper that we used at the Daily Athenaeum. I submitted mine on yellow paper. He docked me five points, and I missed an “A” in the class because of that oversight. A lesson well learned. I never protested the decision. He was right to do what he did. That’s how you mold competent journalists.”
Another one of those journalists-in-training under Atkins was Terry Wimmer. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Orange County (California) Register. “His advice was brutally honest. His sagacity always stayed with me. Professionalism is the painstaking attention to detail. That’s the best lesson he ever gave,” Wimmer told me.
To new students struggling through Atkins’ introductory writing course, he could seem humorless and nitpicky, but those who stuck with journalism came to see Atkins as an important mentor.
“His door was always open,” said Scott Widmeyer, who is the Founding Managing Partner/Chief Strategy Officer for Finn Partners, a media relations firm. “The pathway I took in journalism and communications was directly linked to Paul Atkins.”
Atkins was also adept at weeding out those who were better suited for another career. He dedicated the textbook he wrote—Gathering and Writing the News—to “all my former students who have made it through Journalism 18 (Newswriting)—and to some who did not.”
I had Atkins for J-18 and his book is still in my office. The closing paragraph of his foreword, written in 1973, still applies today. “Whether you are going to be a journalism major or not, the ability to express yourself in writing will be important to your future. And there is a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in being able to write well. Learn all you can.”
The news media are a popular target of criticism today, and sometimes for good reason. Too often opinion is blended in with supposedly objective reporting. We in the news often rush to publish on social media before all the facts are known. I’ve been guilty of those sins more times than I care to count. We make too many mistakes. If Atkins were editing online stories today he would run out of red ink.
Widmeyer said the criticism of the media and shortfalls in the industry remind him of Atkins’ teachings. “There’s too much at stake in today’s society that depends on a free and independent media, but with that comes a responsibility to adhere to the highest degree of ethics and accuracy.”
Paul Atkins has passed on, but his lessons about journalism are timeless.