Celebrating Dan Smith’s 50 Years in Journalism

BRBJ office
Dan in his office at the Blue Ridge Business Journal about 15 years ago.

(Dan Smith wrote this piece in late August and allowed me to publish it here.)

By Dan Smith

Copyright © Dan Smith. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Today marks my 50th year as a journalist. I walked into Asheville Citizen-Times Sports Editor Bob Terrell’s office Aug. 22, 1964 and asked for a job. My mama had told me to give it a try. I was working as a fry cook at King Arthur’s Roundtable.

I had no idea what the job would be, just that I wanted to work there, to become a sportswriter. He said, “Our copy boy left for the newsroom yesterday. Want that job?” I didn’t know what a copy boy did, but I lept at the opportunity and began work that night. The pay was $5 per shift. I was happy to get it.

1971 column pix
New to Roanoke, 1971.

It has been an often bumpy, always gratifying ride through embarrassing failure and soaring success and it has never been dull. I don’t consider myself to have been an exemplary journalist, or even an especially good one. When Casey Stengal was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he said something to the effect that his career was not a glorious one, but he always showed up and “when you do that, people notice.” I probably fall in there somewhere.

The fact is, however, that regardless of the quality of the journalism I have practiced over the years, I have loved the profession since that August day in Asheville. I have met and become friends with people who would never have been in my life without journalism. I have been presented opportunities to do some good, to influence the community, to help shape opinion.

Here’s how I remembered a day that would shape my entire life in my memoir Burning the Furniture:

“The first time I walked into a newsroom—a late August afternoon in 1964—I couldn’t see enough of it in my view shed. I turned around and looked at people and machines; listened to clattering, urgent noises; smelled cigarette smoke and coffee and paste and an asphalt- and oil-tinged breeze off the parking lot, as it wafted through open metal-framed windows. I wanted to touch something, and knew instinctively that a final level of stimulation would complete this sensual feast.

“As I sat in front of Bob Terrell’s editor’s chair in the sports department while he interviewed me for a copy boy job, my head continued to roam. His office had walls only rib high and above that I could see the activity at the city desk; I could watch reporters type and argue simultaneously on telephones; I saw the AP wire editor as he tore copy or watched AP Photos as they rolled out of their machine in magical fashion, making a screeching noise.

young sports writer
Front and dead center, covering a high school all-star basketball game in 1970s.

“At one point, I heard Bob say, ‘Dan, are you listening?’ and I realized I’d strayed from the interview. I said, ‘This looks like so much fun. I want to do it.’ I think the depth of sincerity of that innocent pronouncement from an 18-year-old who’d barely ever held a job got me a desk, a chair and a typewriter that I didn’t know how to use, starting that day, that hour, that minute.”

Third from right. Virginia Communications Hall of Fame induction in 2010.

A Dear Friend Gets Knighted

Aly Colón.

I publicly celebrate the below announcement from Washington and Lee University because it’s about a close friend. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Aly Colón for nearly a quarter century. Not only have I greatly valued our friendship, I’ve witnessed uncommon grace and integrity no matter the personal and professional circumstances.

Aly will become the next John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Media Ethics at Washington and Lee. I could not be more pleased for my friend and his family.

Yes, I had a little fun with the title of this post. But there is more than a kernel of truth contained within the title. One definition of “knight” is this: “a defender, champion, or zealous upholder of a cause or principle.”

That certainly fits Aly, an enthusiastic and generous champion of media ethics, diversity and journalism throughout a long twisting career.

The news release (edited):

New Knight Chair in Media Ethics Announced at W&L

Aly Colón, director of standards and practices at NBC News and assigned to Telemundo Network News, will become the next John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Media Ethics at Washington and Lee University.

Colón is a veteran journalist and former ethics group leader at the prestigious Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he taught and oversaw ethics training for young and mid-career journalists. He has also consulted for and trained journalists in numerous newsrooms throughout the United States.

“Aly Colón will make a strong program stronger,” said Journalism Department Head Pamela K. Luecke. “Ethics has been a cornerstone of our department for four decades, and we look forward to the rich learning opportunities Aly will offer our students.”

At Washington and Lee, Colón will teach the required Journalism Ethics and Media Ethics, as well as other courses. He will also organize and lead the department’s semiannual Ethics Institutes, at which visiting journalists, other mass communications professionals and students discuss ethics case studies from the professionals’ own careers. Many undergraduates cite the Institutes as among their most rewarding learning experiences at Washington and Lee.

“I am excited about joining the faculty in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to its fine tradition of outstanding undergraduate teaching and professional outreach,” Colón said. “I am especially eager to work with the University’s new interdisciplinary Mudd Center to explore the connections and challenges of applied ethics in several professions.”

Read the entire announcement


In addition to being a good friend, Aly has been a faithful mentor to me through the years when I didn’t feel like a writer, or like much of one. He has always encouraged me, and has always been someone I turned to when I needed advice on anything related to writing and storytelling. He edited my first book when he had more important things to do, but he wanted to make that investment of time and expertise on my behalf. So Washington and Lee is fortunate in yet one more way, with this newest addition to its esteemed faculty. Aly starts on July 1.

Upholding Fundamentals, ‘Delivery Methods Be Damned’

Michael Bradley.

As college kids around the country begin a new term, Michael Bradley will have a simple focus for the 20 students in his sports journalism class at Villanova University. The fundamentals. Reporting. Interviewing. Organizing. Writing.

Without those basics, not much else matters Bradley said in his recent piece for the National Sports Journalism Center.

Bradley opened with an anecdote about a game story that had a grammatical error in the first paragraph. The article had surely made the social media rounds “before the printed page reached [his] driveway,” but the mistake stopped Bradley from reading the rest of the story.

“If the writer, and more importantly the editor, couldn’t get it right out of the chute, just imagine what horrors awaited readers later on,” Bradley wrote.

The Philadelphia writer, broadcaster and teacher deeply cares about getting it right.

What can’t be ignored amidst the wave of the new is the enduring need for journalists to do their jobs properly, delivery methods be damned. If you can’t report, interview, cultivate sources, organize facts, and yes write, it doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers you have. You won’t be relevant or reliable.

Fundamentals Don’t Change

Bradley continued with worthwhile advice for anyone who writes.

The heart of journalism remains the ability to write clearly and directly. It doesn’t matter whether you are on TV, radio or the web, if you can’t express yourself with the written word, you won’t be successful. The industry may change, but its fundamentals don’t. And that’s what my students are going to hear at the outset and what they are going to learn throughout the semester.

Bradley’s class sounds like it might be less fun, but it should be more fulfilling. His students will be asked to master the nuts and bolts of sports journalism.

It may not be fun to spend the better part of two weeks learning how to organize basic facts into an inverted pyramid-style straight news story, but it’s vital for any kind of media member to know that. It isn’t as much fun to learn various components of sports reporting and digging for stories as it is to send out Instagram photos and videos, but if you can’t find the information, you can’t get it out there.

I wish I could sit in for a class or two or three.