Jim Ottaway: Making a difference with words

Jim Ottaway (right), longtime volunteer for the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, working on the Rosendale railroad trestle during the spring of 2013. Photo by Lauren Thomas

As a boy, James Ottaway, Jr. listened to his father share stories about his career in journalism. On September 19, more than 60 years later, Ottaway took center stage at the Dennis O’Keefe memorial lecture series to relate his own experiences.


The lecture at SUNY New Paltz’s Coykendall Science Building led the audiences of about 80 persons through Ottaway’s career. A modest and meticulous man with a well-developed sense of dry humor, Ottaway focused on his copy-editing work on newspapers to books.


Ottaway’s journey began editing the Yale Daily News, where he juggled his academics with what turned into a 40-hour work week. “I almost didn’t graduate,” he confessed. “I actually never finished my honors paper. I got a pass from the dean of Yale College and a diploma because I ran the Daily News well in his eyes.”


The Daily News not only taught Ottaway how to handle mounting pressure, but how to edit in times of conflict. After students provoked police officers during a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a riot broke out, resulting in the arrest and beating of 60 students. “The university president wanted to shut the place down,” said Ottaway. “I learned the careful editing of stories at a time of crisis …. That was my editing baptism under pressure. To get it right and not to inflame passions on issues of any kind.”


After his graduation, Ottaway became a reporter and associate editor of the News-Times in Danbury, CT. One of his first assignments was to cover Jack Kennedy giving a 1960 campaign speech in New Haven.


The News-Times was an afternoon paper, so there was very high-pressure in the morning to edit all the news stories that came in and get them in reasonable English by a 10 a.m. deadline,” he said. The young Ottaway went on to write for the Times Herald Record in Middletown before moving to Stroudsburg, PA, where he became the editor of the Pocono Record at 25.


There, he faced off with a headline writer with very shaky grammar and a pistol in his briefcase. “I was afraid to fire him so I had to catch and correct many bad headlines, some of them already cast in hot type at the last minute at midnight when the paper went to press,” said Ottaway.


One night, about a half hour before the paper hit the press, a fire broke out at a nearby factory. Ottaway ordered his staff to call the police, the fire department and the hospital to acquire whatever news they could. When their contacts ran cold, Ottaway recalled a lesson he learned as a student—to go to the original source. “I called up the factory and the owner answered the phone and gave me the whole story. We got it in on deadline,” he said. “When you’re a copy editor, you look to see, ‘Is this a one-source story, a two-source story or a three-source story?’ You read all too many stories that are one-source stories and they’re not as accurate as they would have been if there had been some checking with another source.”


Ottaway became the publisher of the New Bedford Standard-Times in Massachusetts before assuming the role of president and director of the Ottaway newspapers. In 1970, the Ottaway group merged with Dow Jones, where he became a top executive.


As vice president for the international publication of the Wall Street Journal, Ottaway was responsible for overseeing its Asian and European editions. Though arduous, the job quickly revealed the strengths of the Journal’s copy desk, which Ottaway considered at that time “the best in America.”


“Long stories were well-researched and reporters were given three to six months to work on them,” he said. “They were then edited by two or three editors over and over again. Questions were asked and stories were turned back for rewrite. It was the most expert copy-editing I had ever seen.”


Since his retirement in 2003, the long-time New Paltz resident has noticed drastic changes within the journalism world. The industry has changed, and not necessarily for the better.


“A common theme is that there are fewer editors working in newspaper newsrooms today, as they’ve been cut back by the tremendous drop in advertising,” he said. “Advertising in newspapers has cut in half in the last ten years, which led to shrinkage in newsrooms and less careful editing in many cases.”



Despite those cuts journalists can and should continue to apply simple editing standards to their writing to sculpt their best work. According to Ottaway, good grammar is the most obvious.


“We used to fear setting a bad example for school children or making a mockery of well-educated readers,” he said. “When you’re rushing to a deadline [mistakes] are not necessarily stupidity or carelessness.”


He also emphasized the importance of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which discourages the use of adjectives, the passive voice and Latin-derived English words.


“You can still get fired from a newsroom for making repeated errors,” he said.


Objectivity is another important standard. From 1960 to 2000, most daily newspapers were in one-paper towns. According to Ottaway, that was good commercial incentive to report the news in a way that reflected the opinions of all its readers.


“The first cousin of objectivity is fairness,” Ottaway said. “Make the effort to seek out spokespeople for all sides of a story.”


Finally, Ottaway stressed the importance of brevity. “Surveys show that the average reader only spends 30 minutes reading a daily newspaper,” he said. “We try to emulate Hemingway, not Henry James.”


In his retirement, Ottaway has embarked on two unpaid pursuits. For “the fun of it,” the New Paltz resident learned ancient Greek and is translating the Odyssey. His second pursuit is editing manuscripts penned mainly by his friends and assisting them in the publishing process. In recent years, book publishers too have drastically cut down their editorial staffs, leaving authors with less guidance.


“My love of words, their sound and meaning, their origins is Greek and Latin, French and German, Anglo- and Saxon, fascinate me and keep me constantly interested in translating from ancient Greek and Latin to English or editing in English,” he said.


Reflecting on his role as an editor, Ottaway recalled a quote from Elizabeth Hardwick, one of the founding editors of the New York Review of Books. “She said, “Making a living is nothing. The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference with words,’” he said. “I’m trying to help my good writer friends make a difference with well-chosen, carefully edited words.”


Each of the works Ottaway has edited embodies a different theme. His first job was overseeing Elias Kulukundis’ The Amorgos Conspiracy, in which the author recounts rescuing his father-in-law from Greece. He worked with Christopher Santos, a New York City firefighter and 9/11 first responder who worked until Christmas to help recover bodies of victims (The published work was then distributed to every firehouse in New York City). Ottaway’s interest in Greek led him to editing general interest trade books on historical figures. He also worked with Romanian novelist Norman Manea and with Hemanta Mishra, the leading wildlife biologist in Nepal, among others.


Ottaway was asked a question about the recently announced sale of the Dow-Jones dailies, including the Middletown paper, to Fortress Investment Group, an investment management company that manages $54.6 billion in funds, including a considerable holding in distressed properties. Ottaway, quoting a Fortress official as saying the company intended to squeeze greater profitability from the newspaper investment, was not hopeful.


Ottaway, the driving force behind SUNY New Paltz’s Ottaway Visiting Professorship in Journalism, whose most recent participants include NPR correspondent Deborah Amos and Andrew Lehren, an investigative reporter from The New York Times.


Ottaway’s presentation marked the seventh year of the Dennis O’Keefe memorial lecture series. O’Keefe, a long-term staff member of the Sojourner Truth Library, impacted the lives of New Paltz students, staff and community with his positive spirit. Previous lecturers included Gerald Benjamin, director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach and Reva Wolf, professor of art history at SUNY New Paltz, among others.


Despite his retirement, the 75-year-old Ottaway yearns to create more milestones as he and his wife Mary travel their golden years. “My motto, taken by Solon, is ‘I grow old always learning new things,’” he said.


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