Robert C. Cowen, the Monitor's science writer for more than 45 years (1950-1995), is receiving a life-time achievement award today from the American Geophysical Union (see story page 13). His accomplishment prompts some professional reflections on what it means to be a journalist.

In getting a paper out every day, the duties of editors and writers can be described broadly.

An editor is like an admiral. In effect, he or she does what is necessary to get the fleet out and back to port so that timely, fresh, engaging, properly sourced copy appears in the paper.

Assigning the right reporter to a story, coordinating photographers, and arranging for graphics and art are central to the mission. Ongoing in the background are personnel matters, budget matters, and legal matters (copyright, libel, slander. etc.), all duties vital to the success of a newspaper if not the immediate copy in the paper.

A reporter, on the other hand, is like a submarine skipper. Put the periscope up and sink ships, i.e., file stories.

A reporter zeroes in on an issue, a person, an event, and stays with it until the story is filed. Background reading, continuing education in specific subjects, and often, odd hours leading up to filing are part of the job.

Every city, most towns and many suburbs have a daily newspaper. On any given day, an individual story or photo can dramatically affect the life of an individual, or an entire community. But for the most part, like turning an aircraft carrier, papers make changes slowly and carefully. Their influence is cumulative and collective, setting a tone for a community, as well as recording it.


(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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