As a boy, James Ottaway, Jr. listened to his father share stories about his career in journalism. Last Thursday, over 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.”