Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 11, 2014

John Cannon: 'Say what you mean' wise advice from a pro: 3/12/14

John Cannon
The Independent

ASHLAND — As the date of my planned retirement as a professional newspaper journalist after 44 years nears, I find myself thinking more and more about the individuals who had a positive influence on my career.

One was Chester Tannehill, who was the copy desk chief of the Gallipolis, Ohio, Daily Tribune. To say he was head of the copy desk is a bit of an overstatement. On most days, he was the copy desk, single handedly doing all the editing, while writing headlines and laying out the pages of the Tribune. And he didn’t just work on the Tribune. The daily papers in Point Pleasant, W.Va., and Pomeroy, Ohio, were also printed in Gallipolis and Tannehill did the copy editing for all three newspapers.

This was in 1970, and it was years before newspapers had computers, which would have made Tannehill’s job much easier. As it was, carriers from Point Pleasant and Pomeroy had to hand-carry their stories to Gallipolis, to be edited by Tannehill and placed in one of the three papers.  And it all had to be done before noon.

With so much to do in so little time, one would think Tannehill would only do a minimal amount of editing on the stories that came across his desk each morning, but as the writer of many of those stories, I found him to be an excellent editor who in just a few months taught me to be a better writer.

I was hired at the Tribune as a summer intern so I could earn a little money — very little at $75 a week — between the time I graduated from Morehead State University in May until I enrolled in graduate school at Ohio University that fall. However, because the folks at the Tribune liked my work ( or was it because I worked cheap?), I continued to work in Gallipolis on weekends and during school breaks while attending grad school at OU, about 45 miles from Gallipolis.  I liked Gallipolis and I liked the newspaper and I probably would have stayed there after grad school if they had been willing — or able —  to pay me a little more.

 I can still hear the words of Tannehill as he edited the stories I had written on an old manual typewriter.

“What do you mean by this?” he would ask as he read aloud a sentence or paragraph I had written.

I would then proceed to explain what I was trying to say.

“Say what you mean,” he would grunt in his gruff voice as he handed me back my story.

“Say what you mean,” I still consider that some of the best advice I have ever received as a writer, and it came from an old pro working the copy desk on three newspapers in Ohio River communities.

Ironically, about this time, Tannehill proved valuable to this small newspaper for another reason. As those old enough probably remember, President Richard Nixon broke what had been decades of no relations between the United States and China by sending the U.S. table tennis team to China.

Tannehill’s son was a member of that ping-pong team. Although he lived with his mother and did not have a close relationship with his father, the younger Tannehill did give the Tribune an inside view of the historic trip to China.  

I also learned Chet Tannehill was a much better editor than he was a writer. That did not bother me in the least. Some do, and others teach. Tannehill was a great teacher.

I don’t know what became of Chet Tannehill, but since he would now be close to 100, I doubt that he is still with us. But I do know that some of what I am today is because of him. I only wish I would have told him that when I still could.

JOHN CANNON can be reached at (606) 326-2649.