Saturday, December 15, 2007

Rene "Jack" Cappon

I just got to see today the obituary for Rene J. Cappon, who died last week at age 83. (Things move slowly here in the hinterlands.)

Jack Cappon -- no one who knew him called him Rene -- was one of the quiet giants of this business. His obituary is headlined "AP writing ace," but he was so much more than that. Polly Anderson's lead on the obituary captures it perfectly when it describes him as "the word master behind some of its best writers."

I worked with him only occasionally, when he would make a bureau visit for a state members' meeting, the sporadic trip to help coach us or, occasionally, at an AP editors' gathering. Spending five minutes with Cappon was like spending four years in journalism school. He was of the "old school" AP -- full of great advice and of the wire service's legendary stories. But he was also all business when it came to getting the news, getting it right, getting it fast -- and getting it somewhere in the first three grafs.

(Hugh Mulligan, a member of the "Poets' Corner" stable of writers that Cappon presided over as AP Features editor, was another one whose appearance in your bureau was a time for learning and some good laughs.)

Cappon's 1982 book, "The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing," will always stand as one of those works every budding journalist should read and every veteran should reread. Get an education on the language and writing in a volume so slim you can throw it in a briefcase or backpack and refresh yourself while traveling to an assignment. The AP reissued it as "The Associated Press Guide to News Writing: The Resource for Professional Journalists." But to me it will always be "The Word," with the almost-religious overtones rightfully earned (not to mention the spare, classy cover).

If you do nothing else, read its chapter on "Tone: The Inner Music of Words."

Some things change and move on -- and they should. But Cappon's advice on writing is timeless, and many things about the era he represents at the AP will be missed.

I have faith, though, that every time a journalist sits down to write one of those meandering, tortuous anecdotal leads that bury the news and too often these days pass for good "narrative" writing, a little voice will sound in their heads. "Get the news somewhere in the first three grafs," it will say. "We proved for years at the AP that it can be done and still produce a damn good feature story."

It will be Jack, one of the guardian angels of this craft.

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