For Linda Brinson, who calls herself “more a writer than a talker,” writing has always been in the cards.
“I always liked to write, for fun,” Brinson says, describing the poetry and romance stories she wrote growing up.
However, she didn’t get into newspaper journalism until attending Wake Forest University.
“That was when I found out what I thought I could do with my talent and interest in writing,” she says.
Brinson worked for the campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black. She served as managing editor during her junior year and editor-in-chief during her senior year.
When Brinson graduated from WFU in 1969, female journalists were expected to work in the women’s features section of the newspaper. Determined to cover hard news instead, she took a “pretty dreadful job” on the obituary desk for the Winston-Salem Journal.
Her journey into hard news advanced as she moved to Maryland to work on the copy desk for the Baltimore Sun.
Brinson soon became assistant national editor during what she calls the “high point” of newspaper journalism. Her position was the highest a woman had ever attained at the Sun, and during her time there she handled stories covering Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation and the Watergate scandal.
“It was heady stuff,” Brinson says of that period in newspaper history. “You really felt that you were doing something important.”
When she and her husband, Lloyd, moved back to North Carolina, Brinson went to work for the Sentinel in Winston-Salem. She began to write personal columns while working from home and taking care of her newborn son.
Positive reception to her column led Brinson to eventually move to editorial writing, and when the Sentinel was closed in 1985, Brinson moved to its sister paper, the Winston-Salem Journal.
Brinson worked part-time for the Journal and attended UNC-Greensboro for a master of fine arts degree in creative writing. Shortly after completing her degree, she gave birth to a second son.
Upon transitioning back into full-time work at the Journal, Brinson eventually moved back into editorial writing. She also helped to edit the paper and was named interim editorial page editor in 2002; “interim” because a woman taking over the role was controversial, she said.
Months later, “interim” was out and Brinson became full editorial page editor, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
Brinson retired from the newspaper in 2008. Now, she freelances for various publications, completes various editing projects, and runs her own book review blog, Briar Patch Books. In addition, she teaches courses in magazine writing and editing as an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I hope we are doing our part to help prepare our students for the world of journalism that they’re going to be going out into, rather than the one that used to be,” she says.
Interview date: Oct. 23, 2013
Location: Charles Kuralt Room, Carroll Hall, University of North Carolina
Interview Duration: 1:05:41
Linda Brinson: I’m more a writer than a talker.
Katie Jansen: I agree. Okay, can you please just repeat your name, and when and where you were born, that kind of thing?
Brinson: Okay. My name is Linda Carter Brinson. I was born in 1948 in Plymouth, Indiana. But I’m not from Indiana; my father was stationed there in the Army, and my family on both sides is from North Carolina.
Jansen: So did you grow up in the North Carolina area after you were born in Indiana?
Brinson: My dad stayed in the Army until I was ten, and we moved a number of times. Lived in Chicago, then back in North Carolina while he was overseas during the Korean War; then in Nashville, Tennessee; then Indianapolis, Indiana; Laurel, Maryland; then the last two years he was in the Army were two wonderful years in Okinawa.
Jansen: Oh, wow.
Brinson: Which was a wonderful place to be a kid. And then he retired and we moved to Madison, in Rockingham County.
Jansen: And how old were you then?
Brinson: I was ten, going into the fifth grade.
Jansen: Okay. Were you always interested in kind of, the writing/journalism aspect?
Brinson: I always liked to write, for fun. When I was a child I would write poems which I suppose were really awful poems. Then as I got older in, I guess junior high, my best friend and I were writing stories about…I was going to have five sons and she was going to have five daughters, and they were going to have romances and so forth. We were writing those things, and then sometime while I was in high school, I got a part-time job for the weekly paper in Madison. Which was just supposed to be giving the social news such as it was, from west Madison, which is where my family lived. But I would jazz it up a little bit sometimes. That was the Madison Messenger, which was actually a really good weekly newspaper at the time. The author Sherwood Anderson’s daughter, Mimi, had married a man named Russ Spear, and they had wanted to run a newspaper. They came from somewhere up North and moved down and bought a little newspaper, and it was a very good and lively newspaper at that time, so.
Jansen: And what was that newspaper called?
Brinson: Madison Messenger – well, the Messenger, in Madison, North Carolina.
Jansen: And when you say you jazzed up the social news a little bit, do you see that as the beginnings of your editorial career?
Brinson: Maybe so. I know Ms. Spear a lot of times would just edit out everything I had added, but they were paying me by the inch, so she probably just was trying to keep it short.
And then I went to the Governor’s School in North Carolina, and it was there in English, I got into the writing part of it. So, not journalism so much, but just, writing. I knew I liked to write; I didn’t really know what to do with it. And then after Governor’s School, I went back to my–I had gone there between sophomore and junior years in high school–and then I went back to my home high school for the school year and was very dissatisfied being there after having had my eyes opened a little bit at Governor’s School.
So I skipped my senior year of high school and went to Wake Forest when I was 17. I placed out of one of the freshmen–no, I guess I placed out of the sophomore English. They made everybody take freshman English, but I placed out of one of the sophomore Englishes. Anyway, I was on an accelerated track and had an open slot in my schedule sophomore year, so I signed up for journalism. And that was [laughter] when I found what I thought I could do with my talent and interest in writing.
Jansen: Okay. So you were still in Wisconsin for high school, but –
Brinson: Not Wisconsin.
Brinson: North Carolina. Madison, North Carolina.
Jansen: Oh, okay. Gotcha.
Brinson: Very different.
Jansen: Okay, sorry. How did you see yourself, either when you took that first journalism class, or I know you moved up to editor–managing editor? For Old Gold & Black?
Brinson: I was managing editor junior year and then editor-in-chief senior year.
Jansen: How were those experiences? I did see one article online about, you got to report on the riots after…?
Brinson: Oh, yeah, yeah. The whole journalism experience at Wake Forest at that time, in the 1960s, was wonderful. I had only one teacher, only one journalism teacher, because there was not a major or even a minor in journalism, it was just some classes in the English department. But they had a long tradition at Wake Forest of journalism with graduates like Harold Hayes, who’d been editor of Esquire, and any number of distinguished journalists.
The original journalism professor had been Dr. E. E. Folk, and he had asked his star student, Bynum Shaw, to come back and teach there when Dr. Folk was getting ready to retire. So my teacher was Bynum Shaw, who had had a distinguished newspaper career working for, among other newspapers, the Baltimore Sun. I remember him coming into class and talking about covering the civil rights marches in the early 1960s. He could even, you know, recite his lead about the marchers coming across the bridge in Alabama. And he had been in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up after the war and covered that sort of thing. He just had all these exciting stories about things he had covered, and he has such a really passionate belief in the importance of journalism and the First Amendment. I just felt like I had found something that was really important. This was the 60s, you have to remember, everybody, you know college kids wanted to do – save the world and do good things, and I thought, you know, this was sort of my way to do it.
And so, I got my nerve up, with his encouragement, and went over to the, the student newspaper office, the Old Gold & Black, and the first story they sent me out on, when they were just trying to see if I could do anything, was to cover a blood drive at the gym. I went over and somehow found a story about a baseball player who wanted to give blood but wasn’t old enough to do it without his parents’ permission, so he went and found his coach and got his coach to sign for him. I did it as a feature instead of just a little short about the blood drive. The editors, who were, you know, scary juniors and seniors, decided maybe I could do something. So they let me work for the newspaper.
That was a weekly newspaper, I think it still is weekly. But we were up there all the time; I practically lived in room 226 Reynolda Hall on the Wake Forest campus. By the time I was a junior, I was the managing editor, and my senior year I was the editor-in-chief. That was my life in college. It was really, really fun.
And yes, we had the race riots downtown. I’m thinking it was after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but I’m not absolutely sure–but it was my junior year because I was managing editor. We get our copy and our layouts ready, and take them downtown to the bus station and put them on the bus and send them to the Nashville Graphic newspaper office in Nashville, North Carolina, which was where the Old Gold & Black had been printed when Wake Forest College was still in Wake Forest in Wake County. And somehow they just never changed, so we had to drive-–I know, it’s crazy. Our deadlines were Wednesday night, Thursday night, and then Friday night was the big deadline. So we would drive down, when we got done at 2 or 3 a.m. Oh, and you know, girls had to have special permission to be out, because you weren’t supposed to be out after 11, but that’s another story. So we were having these race riots in Winston-Salem, and the streets were closed. The National Guard was out, and there were guns and all this stuff. But we got permission to still take our copy to the bus station. So, you know, usually just one of the guys would go, one of the editors-in-chief at the time who were seniors and had a car, but I didn’t want to miss out on the excitement, so I rode along, on that one. Which was pretty memorable.
Jansen: You said girls had to have special permission to be out. How were times in the 60s? Bynum Shaw was a big influence for you, and I saw something about he was very sure that females could succeed in the field. But that often wasn’t the case, right?
Brinson: Right. That’s a lot of questions there. [Laughter] I’ll go back to the one about what was it like to be in college as a girl in the 60s. I graduated in 1969, so this was really the 60s, but everything sort of starts on the West Coast and moves east. It hadn’t really gotten to Wake Forest yet, when I was there. The feminist revolution and all this kind of thing. I remember as a freshman, we had a session in which we were told how to dress if we went downtown in Winston-Salem to go shopping. You know, like, white gloves and this kind of thing. As female students we had to wear dresses. If we went across the street from where the girls’ dorms were, we had to have on a skirt, which, on Saturdays if we were just going up to check our mail or something, might mean a raincoat over your jeans or something. But you had to have on a skirt. And girls, as freshmen, had closed study–had to be in their rooms for a certain number of hours each night. Guys didn’t. I don’t know why they didn’t realize the girls were probably going to study more than guys, anyway. But we couldn’t stay out after night–after certain hours at night–we certainly couldn’t stay out overnight unless we were signed out to visit a parent or something like that.
So to work on the newspaper, I had to get special permission to be out late, because our deadline–we just didn’t get finished that early. And I did, but they would not give us a key to get into the dorm because they said we might be attacked and molested while we were walking across campus and trying to use the key to get into the dorm. Instead, they wanted us to get the campus cop to escort us back. Well, at the time, there was one campus cop on duty at any given time. Now there’s a whole police force, but there was one. There was usually at least one other girl who worked at the same time I did, and we would get finished at 2 or 3 a.m. and have to go all around the campus looking for the campus cop. Sometimes we’d find him asleep in his car or something, you know, but somehow they thought–the deans, in all their wisdom, thought that was safer than just having a key and going to the dorm. But of course, that also meant that we sometimes would get finished and go out somewhere like Staley’s and have breakfast before we came back and found the campus cop to let us in. But anyway, that’s another story.
Yes, I did get really interested in going into newspaper journalism. I, in fact, thought about transferring to the journalism school at Carolina, but got talked out of it by Bynum Shaw and other people who told me that Wake Forest’s philosophy was that you didn’t need to major in journalism and take a lot of journalism courses…that it was better to major in something in the liberal arts and have broad knowledge and get your practical experience by working on the student newspaper and working internships in the summer. Which I did. The summer after my sophomore year and the summer after my junior year and the Christmas vacation of my senior year at the Greensboro–at the time it was the Greensboro Daily News–as both reporter and copy editor.
So I stayed at Wake Forest, and I would talk to Bynum about my aspirations and he was certainly encouraging that a woman could be a newspaper journalist. But he did caution me about getting–I can’t think of the right adjective–but he would say things like, you know, “Don’t start cursing,” you know, “Don’t use bad language just because you’re around these rough guys. Don’t be like that. Don’t let it coarsen you.” That was part of his concern.
Jansen: So, let’s skip a little bit forward and talk post-graduation. You went right to the Sun after?
Brinson: Oh, no. I went to work at the Winston-Salem Journal. And I worked there…well, okay, back up. At that time, women who went to work for a newspaper were expected to go to work for the women’s section. Some of them called it features, or whatever, but it was the women’s section. I was determined that I was not going to do that. So they did let me work in the regular news section, but also at that time, the newspaper industry really had the attitude that you had to–they didn’t care if you’d been editor of your student newspaper and won all kind of awards and been an intern and so forth–you had to earn your spot.
So my job was taking obituaries. I would sit there at a phone on the state desk and answer when either the funeral homes or our stringers in various places called in with obituaries. And I would have to get them into the right form. This was before the days of paid obituaries; obituaries were free then and we had some editorial control over them–which was a pretty dreadful job. But the state editor was compassionate somewhat and he knew that I wanted to be a reporter, so he would free me from the obit desk sometimes and send me out on features or a news story somewhere out in the region.
Eventually I was able to move over to be a city reporter. I worked there for a little over a year, and it was at the time, a really good newspaper. Wallace Carroll, who had been a distinguished reporter for the New York Times, was the editor and publisher, and the standards were very high. The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for that year that I was there–not that I had that much to do with it, but you know, that’s the kind of atmosphere it was. However, having thought I was pretty good journalist in college and then having to go back to being an obituary writer was quite a comedown, and then…I don’t know, the atmosphere at newspapers at the time was you never…I think maybe they do this a little better now, but you never got praised. It was if you did something wrong, you were told that you’d done something wrong. But if you did something good, that was just expected. So I spent that whole year thinking, “I’m about to be fired. I must not be any good.”
And a job came open at Wake Forest in alumni publications. A friend of mine had had that job who– actually one of the co-editors of Old Gold & Black the year before I was editor–had that job for a year or so, and he was leaving and getting back into newspaper work and wanted to know if I wanted it. So I resigned from the newspaper to take that job, and it was only after I had submitted my letter of resignation that I was called in to, you know, the various editors and Mr. Carroll, the editor and publisher, and told that they were distressed that I was leaving because I was so good and I was so promising. I’m thinking, like, “Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”
So I worked at Wake Forest for maybe two and a half years in alumni publications. That was before they had a huge staff for the alumni publications; I was kind of it. So I got some good experience in magazine writing and that kind of thing then, but I wanted to get back into newspaper work. So I started applying, and I was offered a job in Atlanta at the Journal-Constitution, but it was to be out in a bureau somewhere and I thought, you know, I won’t know anybody there, I don’t really want to be stuck out in a bureau.
Then I was offered a job at the Sun in Baltimore on the copy desk. I had really sort of always thought of myself as a writer, but, that’s a way to get in. So I moved up there early in 1973. That was a wonderful experience. The copy desk at the time was really big. It was run by a guy named Bob Grover, a Penn State grad who had been a Navy officer for a while. But he was still young; he might not even have been 40. He ran a very, very good copy desk, with very high standards. He had hired a lot of younger people. So it was a real good learning experience. I think I really learned a lot about–I mean, I’d taken editing classes and I edited things–but I really learned a lot about being a really good editor there.
That was just an exciting time to be in that general area near Washington, DC and so forth. The Sun, at that time, was one of the leading newspapers in the country with lots of bureaus in other countries and a really big Washington bureau. And while it was the New York Times–I mean, the Washington Post, and then to some extent the Times–breaking most of the Watergate stories as that developed, the Sun was there, too.
I had been on the rim of the copy desk for a while when the jobs of assistant national and assistant foreign editor came open. Maybe they were reorganized; I don’t remember. But I remember that those two jobs were going to be filled and they were trying out various ones of us from the copy desk who they thought had some promise. I happened to be trying out as the assistant national editor, which meant I was basically handling all the stories that came through and laying out the pages, the night Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president, which was a huge story for the Baltimore Sun because Agnew was from Baltimore, had been mayor of Baltimore, had been governor of Maryland. He was ours. We had our Washington bureau going crazy, sending in all kinds of stories. I was there, handling all of them, laying out pages, re-laying out pages, doing all this stuff. It was really pretty cool. We were there until our last deadline, 2 or 2:30 or something. I think we did an extra special edition or something. Then several of my friends from the copy desk and I all went to one of our favorite restaurants in Little Italy, which was Zapatino’s, to get something to eat and kind of celebrate, you know, because we all didn’t like Agnew and we thought, wow, this is great. So we were in the dining room having our good time when one of the waiters or somebody told us that Agnew and his family were in the back room, because that was his favorite restaurant, too. So that was the kind of atmosphere that was going on.
Then the Watergate scandal began to develop, and I, by that time, was the assistant national editor, and for a lot of that time, the man who was the national editor was ill, so I filled in for him a good bit of the time. And those were just really exciting times to be dealing with breaking news. Our Washington bureau reporters would be trying to cover things, and they got some good stories. But then every night, I’d have to watch the wires and see what came in from the Washington Post and the New York Times and so forth. If it was anything that [our Washington Bureau] didn’t have, I would call them and talk to them and they would tell me if they thought they could match it or get something else on it or if I should go with the story from the Post or the Times, that kind of thing.
I got to go over to Washington to spend some time in the bureau so I would know the reporters better. I went with the White House reporter to the White House and got to be there for a press briefing with Ron Ziegler, from the Nixon administration. The terrible thing was that the night Nixon actually–the day he actually finally resigned–I was on vacation. I was still in town, and I wanted so much to go in and handle those stories and lay out those pages, but the Sun was a union newspaper, the Newspaper Guild. And they would not let me do it. [Laughter] I was really brokenhearted about that. But that was a great experience.
Jansen: Let’s talk about your assistant national editor position for a minute. Do you know what year that was that you did make the switch over? How long were you at the Sun on the copy desk?
Brinson: I went to the Sun at the beginning of 1973. Somewhere toward the end of the first year I was there, I’m guessing, I moved over to assistant national editor. In that time, I also would fill in sometimes as the news editor, which meant you laid out the front page; and as the makeup editor, which meant you went down to the composing room and supervised the–this was, you know, pre-computer, although the Sun did convert to computer, sort of rudimentary computers while I was there, which is another story. I left at the end of, in November 1975. So, I don’t remember exact dates in there.
Jansen: And how common was it for a woman to get an editor position at that time, especially as young as you were at that time?
Brinson: I attained the highest position that any woman had ever had at the Baltimore Sun outside of women’s features. So it was quite uncommon. I left there because I had gotten married. My husband had been a reporter at the Sun for a while and wanted, we sort of realized…this was another thing Bynum Shaw had told me, he said journalists–women journalists–usually marry men journalists, and that’s a really bad idea because those marriages don’t usually last. My husband had decided that he wanted to get out of newspaper work. He was a veteran. He had been a Marine officer in Vietnam. So he was using the GI Bill to get teaching certification, and this was, by then, the mid-1970s and back to the land, all that sort of thing. We just decided that we wanted to move back to North Carolina, buy a farm, slow our lives down, be able to, you know, raise children and that sort of thing. So I resigned, and I was again called in by the editors and told that they hated to lose me because I had reached the highest position that any woman had to that time, and that I would have a great future if I stayed there and all that sort of thing. But, you know, I was 27, 28.
Jansen: Did you receive mostly positive responses like that? I know from other editors, but from reporters and things? Was everyone pretty supportive of your work there as editor?
Brinson: They were. The people on the Washington bureau were great. They were really good to work with. I had gotten a horse while I lived up there and kept it boarded out in Baltimore County, and they knew that my husband and I were buying a farm and we were going to bring our horse and try to raise horses and so forth. Adam Clymer, who had been the main White House reporter, gave me a riding crop as a going away present. They were very good. They did not seem to–maybe it’s because I proved myself, I don’t know–but they did not seem to think, “Oh, here’s this 20-something girl, you know, I don’t want her handling my copy.” They were very good to work with. And a lot of it was because Bob Grover, the man who ran the copy desk, was just great and had hired a number of young people, including young women. He’d gone out of his way to find really bright, talented people. I guess the rest of the newspaper respected the operation he ran on the copy desk, so that helped.
Jansen: So you moved back to North Carolina and got your farm. Did you go straight back to the Twin Sentinel?
Brinson: I went to work for what was called the Sentinel, at the time, the afternoon paper. It had earlier in its existence been the Twin City Sentinel, but by then it was the Sentinel. I wanted to work for the afternoon paper because I had been working, of course, for a morning paper in Baltimore and getting off at, you know, 2 a.m. or something. This was all a part of trying to get some sanity in our lives. So, yes, I went right to work for the Sentinel. I started out being a reporter four days a week and on the copy desk one day a week, and then I moved in to being a reporter. And I was sort of the rural reporter, I guess. The morning paper, the Winston-Salem Journal, was the regional paper, and the Sentinel was more of the local Winston-Salem area paper. But the managing editor at the time thought he wanted to reach out a little bit farther, and so my mandate partly was to go out into surrounding counties and find interesting stories and, to some extent, cover their governmental meetings and that kind of thing. So I put a lot of miles on my car and traveled a lot and got lost out in the sticks and that sort of thing, but it was fun. That was fun.
Jansen: And you started writing editorials when you were there as well, right?
Brinson: I guess I got a little restless, I don’t know. But I started trying a few personal columns. Well, I had a baby, for one thing, and I talked them into letting me work from home some days. And so covering news stories from the phone with a child running around can be pretty tough. I remember one time when my son was probably one, he had a little plastic horse on wheels he rode on, and I’m sitting there trying to interview somebody over the phone, and he had thrown his leg up over the handles of the little horse and got his leg pinched and started screaming bloody murder. I had to say, “Could you hold just a minute while I rescue my baby?”
So I was trying to think of ways to deal with that, and one thing I thought of was to write on the days I worked at home–rather than try to cover news those days–to write a column. It would be fun, and it would be kind of easier to manage. So I tried a few and turned them in and the editors were receptive. At that time, the column I wrote was sort of life on the farm, rural life, that kind of thing.
I did that for a while, and then an opening came in the editorial department. I was encouraged to try for that, so I did, and I started writing editorials, and I liked that. That was pretty interesting and satisfying professionally. I did that for a while, and I continued to write some columns occasionally.
I would have been pretty content to continue doing that, except this was when newspaper journalism started its slide, and afternoon papers were in trouble. I mean really the paper was, as I understand it, still making money, but by then the Winston-Salem papers had been bought by a chain. And as did most newspaper owners, they thought, “Well, we could make more money if we get rid of the afternoon paper and probably we’ll still have all the same advertisers and so forth, but we’ll be paying fewer people and printing, you know, buying less newsprint and all that.” So they did. They closed the Sentinel in 1985. I’d been working there ten years when they closed it. It was a terrible experience.
Looking back, I realize now that when I was in Baltimore in the early- to mid-70s, I was privileged to be part of probably the high point of print journalism–print newspaper journalism, at least, in the twentieth century. It was wonderful, you know, to feel that you’d been a part, however small, of bringing down a president and that sort of thing. It was just really heady stuff. You really felt that you were doing something important. The newspapers then were making a lot of money, and they had lots of money to spend, and they had all these bureaus and expense accounts and they would let you do this and let you do that. And it was great. But it wasn’t long that the fortunes turned.
So when the–I should back up. One of the best things I did for the Sentinel in terms of enjoyment was– I don’t remember, let’s see, it was probably 1983–talking about the freedom we had to do things, I was allowed to take a week and, with my family, travel the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, camping all along the way. Then I wrote a series about the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was a lot of fun.
But anyway, okay. The Sentinel closed, and it was a horrible time. I’ll never forget it. When they called the staffs of the two newspapers–we were in the same building, the journalists–and they called us all in together and announced that the Sentinel was closing in, I think, a month. They gave everybody an envelope. Then you open your envelope, and it says, “you’re fired” or it says, “you get to stay.” People were crying and it was just horrible.
I got to stay, which was, I guess good, but it was very difficult. For those of us who had been on the Sentinel who were kept, there was a lot of resentment from the people on the morning paper. They felt that every one of us who was kept meant somebody who they had worked with and cared about was not kept. There was a lot of jockeying around and where do we put people and what do we do. I was told by the managing editor that he didn’t know what to do with an editorial writer because they didn’t need any editorial writers.
So I became an assistant features editor for a while, and it was a very difficult and unpleasant time. I went part-time for a while. Taught journalism part-time at Wake Forest–Bynum Shaw was getting close to retiring, and he wanted me to come and teach some of the classes–and went to UNC-G and got a master of fine arts in creative writing. So I was doing all that, and then about the time I finished my master’s degree, I had another baby.
Jansen: How old was your first son at that point?
Brinson: My first son was 11 and a half, and I was 40. This was, needless to say, something of a surprise. But, you know, I was thinking, “I’m going to finish my master’s degree, and then I’m going to do something.” What I did was had another son.
At some point in there, I went back. I don’t know how much, this is one of those places where you don’t know how much to say…but you know, there had been some understanding that the people at Wake Forest wanted me to come and be Bynum Shaw’s successor. That’s part of the reason I started teaching part-time out there. But before that happened, there was a change in administration. And then…it didn’t happen. So I was kind of like, “Okay. What am I going to do now?” I went back to work at the Journal full-time. Not long after that that an opening came in journal editorial, and I talked to the publisher, Jon Witherspoon, about applying for that. He encouraged me to do that, and I moved over to journal editorial in 1994.
Jansen: I did have that in my notes.
Brinson: That’s where I stayed. I was not the first woman editorial writer. They had had Emily Wilson, who’s a noted author and the wife of Ed Wilson, who was the provost at Wake Forest. She used to work part-time as an editorial writer for the Journal, doing some specific sorts of pieces, I know for sure. I don’t know if there’d been another woman editorial writer. But I was there and I enjoyed doing it. I started writing a column which was now a more general, sometimes it would be on things in the news, sometimes it would be a sort of personal column, it was a mix. I always enjoyed doing those.
Jansen: Did you always get to pick your own topics?
Brinson: Absolutely. I also moved in to doing more and more of the editing of the section because the man who was the editor didn’t really like to do that all that much. I was named deputy editorial page editor at some point. And the man who was the editor was wanting to transition into retiring, and he came up with a plan–this was John Gates–he came up with a plan to drop back and be an editorial writer while I would move into the editor’s job. Which was not an ideal situation, to be now theoretically the supervisor of someone who had been your boss. But that’s what I was offered, so this is interesting. Even though I had been working there all those years, and I had been acting as deputy editorial page editor for a while, when this proposal came up, I was told that the owners and the brass in Richmond, which was headquarters of Media General, weren’t sure they were comfortable with a woman being the editorial page editor, so they were gonna make me interim editorial page editor for a while.
Jansen: But this was already like, late ’90s, early 2000s, right?
Brinson: So I was interim editorial page editor for a while. Then finally in 2002 they decided that maybe I might be all right, and made me editorial page editor. It was a bit of a problem for them because I had never been paid as much as the men who held any of the jobs that I held. A few years before this time, Media General had put in a pay scale and I was so far below the pay scale for editorial page editor that they were gonna have to break their own rules about how large a raise anyone could get in one year. It was a real problem for them. But we worked that out. I did become the editorial page editor. I was the first woman to have her name on the masthead of the Winston-Salem Journal–I am about 100 percent sure. I know I’m the first editorial page editor, and I am pretty sure that there had not been a woman managing editor, executive editor, anything like that. This was in the twenty-first century.
Jansen: So was it kind of the same reaction there–other than Media General–your co-workers, since you’d already been there so long, you’d already proved yourself?
Brinson: Absolutely. The coworkers were great. I was very fortunate to have a very supportive publisher, Jon Witherspoon. I can’t say enough good things about him. In fact, looking back, one of the reasons I left the Journal when I did was because we changed publishers; he retired. When the new publisher came in, I didn’t have the same level of support and insulation from what was going on in corporate activities. You know, people ask me if I miss the newspaper, and I say I miss what the newspaper was, but I don’t miss what the newspaper is. After the new publisher came in, one of the first things…I had been, my department had been insulated–we were small, anyway–from the rounds and rounds of staff cuts, you know, the things that were going on in the newspaper industry by that time. Firing thirty people, and then two years later firing thirty more people, and this kind of thing. My little editorial page department had been spared all that, but it wasn’t long after we got a new publisher that he came in one day and told me that I had to get rid of my very best editorial writer because he happened to live and work in Raleigh. The publisher somehow thought we had a Raleigh bureau, which was not the case at all. This man just wrote state editorials about state issues and actually worked from either the press building down at the legislature or his home. We didn’t pay for any of that. When they said I had to get rid of him and he wouldn’t be replaced, I said at that moment, “Well, you might as well just take me, too.” This was early in 2008. It took me the rest of the year to work out some kind of severance package that I could deal with. But that was really the moment that I decided I wanted to leave. Because I didn’t think I would have the resources to do the job the way I had been doing it and the way I wanted to do it.
Jansen: How did your Sunday book page correspond in all of this? Were you doing that before you stepped up to be the editorial page editor? Because I know you were editing that, as well, right?
Brinson: That’s right. That’s sort of a labor of love. I was never paid extra for doing that, I just kind of did it. It started in 1985. After the Sentinel closed and I was telling you how chaotic it was, and everybody was trying to figure out what they were doing. I was put in the features department, and one of the things that I was given the opportunity to do was take over the Sunday book page from the Sunday editor who had been doing it. I was glad to do that because I’d always loved books and reading and writing. I started editing the book page then, in 1985. I just kept it with me, whatever I did. When I went part-time, even in 1988, while I was working part-time, I took my family–at that time it was my husband and my 11-year-old and my pregnant self–took our camper and went all around the United States for about six or seven weeks. I wrote travel stories, feature stories and so forth, from all around the country for the Journal. Before I left, I had gotten all the book pages ready for all those weeks that I would be gone. I prided myself all those years on not running any wire service reviews; they were all locally written reviews. We focused as much as we could on books and authors with North Carolina connections, but I had a good stable of freelance reviewers. We paid them a little bit, but not much. They did it mostly because they loved to do it. It was just a real lively book page, and that was a lot of fun through the years. I did keep it with me when I was part-time, when I was in features, when I moved to editorial, when I became the editorial page editor. Maybe I was just selfish. I didn’t want to give it up.
Even after I left the paper at the end of 2008, that was part of what we negotiated. I continued doing, editing the book page on a contract basis for two more years until the Journal got yet another new publisher who decided that that would be a good way to save money, would be to stop paying people to write book reviews and paying me to edit the page, when they could run wire reviews. So I was having, all those years–how many years is that, from 1985 to 2008–having gotten loads and loads of free review books all those years, I really didn’t want to give that up. One of my writers said, “You know, you’ve got all these contacts, you’ve got a name, people know you in the publishing industry. Send them an email. Tell them you’re starting a blog.” So I did. I started a blog. It’s called Briar Patch Books. The publishing houses by that time were tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to get attention for their books because, you know, if there’s an AP review and 100 newspapers run it, that’s one review. That was what was going on. So they were very supportive of reviews on a blog. I get all sorts of review books, and authors are very cooperative about interviews and so forth. Not long after I started the blog, the editorial page editor at the Greensboro News & Record, which is a competitor of the Winston-Salem Journal, realized that the Journal had stopped its locally written book page. The News & Record, earlier, had stopped its locally written book page. He, Allen Johnson, had, at that time, decided to revive the book page and got in touch with me and asked if I’d be willing to write for it. So I do a lot of reviews and author interviews and so forth for Allen Johnson at the Greensboro News & Record as well as for my blog. And occasionally reviews for Our State magazine.
Jansen: You also have different publications that aren’t necessarily book reviews. You’re doing a lot of freelance now, right?
Brinson: That’s right. I really found out what the freelance world is like when I left the paper. For a while–three years or four years–I wrote a lot of articles for the website howstuffworks.com. It’s on the Discovery channel now. Which was kinda fun. The industry just keeps changing, you know. They decided after the Discovery channel had–I may not be getting all these details right, I just know the effect it had on me–at some point they abruptly decided to stop paying all their freelancers. I don’t know what they do now, but I stopped doing that. I love editing, and I edited, most recently, a book that’s the latest edition or volume or whatever of the history of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem written by a retired editorial writer from Charlotte. He wrote it, I edited it. But now, a really fun project I’m working on is by the woman, Elaine Brye, who introduced Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She is someone I know from the Naval Academy. My younger son went to the Naval Academy, and Elaine has had three of her children go through the Naval Academy. Whe was one of the moderators of their listserv for parents. I’ve never actually met her in the flesh, but I know her real well. And she was the military mom who introduced Michelle Obama and has one child each in the Navy, the Marines, the Army and the Air Force. After she was at the convention I emailed her and said, “You know, you really need to write a book.” Then a lot of other people, and people in higher places than I am, had told her the same thing. So she and I are working together. She’s writing and I’m editing, and we’re almost finished. It’s so exciting.
Jansen: Oh, wow.
Brinson: It’s sort of a memoir about her life and then talking about how it came to be that all four of her children are in the military and in different branches of the military. Talking some about child-rearing and that sort of thing, and her experiences at the Convention, how she met Michelle Obama and all that sort of thing. So that’s been a lot of fun. Oh, and I’m doing a project for the Nicholas School at Duke doing four profiles of Nicholas School alums that’s designed to kind of raise awareness among Duke alumni about what the Nicholas School–being one of their newest schools, some of the older alums don’t really understand that much about its purpose and what those people do and the things they have to offer. I’m doing profiles for them and, just, you know, a lot of different projects.
Jansen: How did you find–kind of backing up here a minute–how did you find that your MFA work, or maybe things that you learned in your program, corresponded to other areas of your writing, since you’re doing so much journalistic writing and things too?
Brinson: Probably the main value of the MFA, as it turns out…you know, I had harbored some notion of maybe I’d write a novel or something. But as I said, you know, almost as soon as I got my degree finished, I was pregnant again and then I was raising another kid, so that wasn’t going to happen. But it has been very valuable in all the writing about books and authors that I do. I think it has made me a better critic. I have a lot of rapport with authors, and I also know a lot of authors. So that’s been valuable in that respect.
Jansen: For sure.
Brinson: Plus, one of the things I did after I left the newspaper but was still trying to earn a living, besides freelancing, is teaching at various colleges. Having a master’s degree, especially a terminal–an MFA is a terminal degree–made that a lot easier. I mean some of them will hire people without an advanced degree, but it’s a lot easier if you have that degree.
Jansen: So you teach feature writing at UNC, right?
Brinson: I teach magazine writing.
Jansen: Magazine writing.
Brinson: In the past, I’ve taught news writing and news editing. But for several semesters now, I’ve taught the magazine writing and editing class, which is a really fun class. We are really out there. Talking about how the industry has changed so much during my lifetime, and now we’re teamed with the magazine design class, and we do our magazines on iPad. We change it every semester. It’s just like the industry’s changing, our classes are changing. We never use the same syllabus. We blow it up every semester and reinvent the class. We had been doing one–a print version–and then at the end of the semester, we’d move it on to iPad. This time we’re going digital first and doing the iPad magazine first, and then moving that into print. So I hope we are doing our part to help prepare our students for the world of journalism that they’re going to be going out into, rather than the one that used to be.
Jansen: Can you speak a little bit to how technology has changed throughout your time in the newsroom?
Brinson: When I started, we typed on manual typewriters. I remember I was working on the copy desk of the Greensboro Daily News in the summer of 1967 when there was a war going on with Israel. And they were remodeling the newsroom, so they had shoved the copy desk back where the wire machines were, where the wire stories came in, you know. It was not like coming quietly and on a computer. It was clack-clack-clack-clack-clack, and we were sitting there with that behind us and then the bells would go off when there were bulletins and all that. That was pretty fun.
Then I was at the Sun when it became one of the first major dailies to try computers for production. It was a disaster; it was horrible. There was no security. I remember one time somebody went in and hacked in–I mean, they didn’t even have to hack in, they just went in–and changed a lot of the wedding stories to say things like, “so-and-so had to get married, and there was a shotgun wedding” and all this kind of thing. Our first edition was supposed to be printed, it would come up about 9 o’ clock, 9 p.m., and we would read over the first edition to see what corrections we needed to make for the subsequent editions. There were so many nights when we first started using the computer system that the first edition would be just filled with what we call “bang,” which was just stock feature story, wire stories or something, that were just ready to go, that would just be slapped in, that weren’t real live stories at all because everything we had done would have crashed.
When I left there, I went back to Winston-Salem and went to work for the Sentinel, they had progressed from–well, I should back up and say when we were editing at the Sun, before we got computers, the stories were written on copy paper, and you had copy boys who brought them around from the city desk or wherever to the copy desk. We would sit there and edit them with pencils. If you needed to move a paragraph, you had a line gauge and you ripped the paper and every copy editor had a glue pot and you would glue the pieces together. I’ll never forget, there was a really good copy editor, who later went to the New York Times, so intent on editing some big Watergate-related story, he was sitting there with his cup of black coffee and his glue pot and he stuck the brush from his glue pot into his coffee. Anyway, that was what we were doing there.
Then when I went to the Sentinel they had progressed from manual typewriters to IBM Selectric typewriters–electric. They were using scanner paper, and you had to get the paper just exactly right into the margins, the margins right and all that, so it would scan. That was really bad. Then eventually they moved to computers. I went through two or three complete new computer systems during the years I was in Winston-Salem, and every time it was an awful transition. It seemed to me that every advance meant more work, especially the editors. Because what they were doing was they were replacing all the really, really talented people in the composing room and so forth; those jobs were just going away, and editors were having to learn to format and program and do this and do that and the other, where we used to just edit.
I fear that the real art of editing, in terms of not just fixing typos and misspellings, but really thinking about what the story says and whether it’s got the right lead and whether there are holes in it and whether you needed to talk to somebody else, whether it’s fair–all of that–I’m afraid there are editors who are so busy trying to do all the technical things that they just don’t have time to think about those bigger things that we used to call editing. Especially now that so many editors have been downsized, too.
So yes, it’s changed a lot, and then of course the newspapers–the print newspapers, it seems to me, did not figure out how to deal with the Internet. They just didn’t. And they still haven’t. People say, “Oh, well. Who cares if newspapers go away? I get all my news from the Internet, or I get my news from Google News,” or something. I always say, “Where do you think Google News gets its news?” You know, you’ve got to have people who are educated and trained and whose job it is to go out and see what’s going on in the world and ask the right questions and think about things. That’s not to say they’re any smarter than other people, but other people, you know, have jobs as doctors or lawyers or teachers or whatever. They don’t have the time and the resources to be journalists. You need journalists. I think back to my days when I was in college and first got interested in being a journalist, and the passion and the things Bynum Shaw said about the importance of it. I still believe that. That it is vitally important for a democracy to have a strong, free and independent press. There’s so much information now, but so much of it is not good. And it doesn’t even pretend to be objective. I hope that there will be something like newspapers into the future. Because we need that. Whether it’s on paper, which it probably won’t be–whatever form it’s in, I hope that it will be, because it’s important.
Jansen: Great. Unless there’s anything you want to add, I think that’s pretty much all I had for you. We need to wrap up pretty soon. That was really interesting hearing everything, so thank you.
Brinson: You’re welcome.
END OF INTERVIEW