Hank Ackerman ’64, Associated Press Newsman

Report. Write. Edit. Check vocabulary, diction, grammar. Provide context. Tell the story to your audience. Let witnesses and knowledgeable sources round out facts. Above all, be accurate and be fair. And, did I say speed on getting the story onto the “wire?” And, tomorrow, I’m going to ask you “what did you do for me lately.” The story can always be updated.

The checklist of Nate Polowetsky, the foreign editor of The Associated Press, and admonitions of the AP Stylebook that I carried with me, became indelible….

Beyond reminders of completeness and balance in reporting, AP’s International Vice President Stan Swinton gave further advice for the young writer who he and Polowetzky were sending to Buenos Aires in 1972 to commence a 35-year career: “Remember the ‘little’ guy and don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Before Davidson, there likely was a journalism gene in my DNA. My father and grandfather both worked for newspapers and news agencies during lengthy careers. Even so, writing—with high standards set by AP—was never easy for me. Balancing the choice of words and the context for photographs I took or radio reports I aired to explain my only partial experience of events, I wrestled with my biases. Background helped. Context was engendered by the fortune of having a liberal arts education….

Stories of important events I covered in the 1970s and 1980s from a dozen Latin American nations would travel within minutes to thousands of newspapers and broadcasters worldwide. The stories were typed on a telex-like machine onto tape that was fed through a tape distributor onto a leased “wire” and onto our New York international desk at the rate of 66 words per minute. Corrections could not always catch up with original stories. So the pressure of being accurate and as complete as possible in reporting was squarely on the shoulders of every reporter and editor….

As news editor for southern South America, I worked for a year without a day off while the world’s attention and that of our 20-person Argentine staff was focused on urban guerrilla terrorism spawned by the return of iron-man Juan Domingo Peron to Buenos Aires. Along with this, we monitored the strife in neighboring Chile where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup….

From Peru, I covered coup d’états in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, disputes over Amazon-jungle oil development, expropriations of American-owned copper mines, Russian and Cuban involvement with the military government….

In Caracas, the story was oil, as Venezuela was a major producer with the world’s largest reserves but also was a leader in OPEC’s efforts to raise oil prices.

Back in the United States in 1980, I headed news bureaus in Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit, and, then, commuted to Atlanta for 13 years. From 1993-2003, I commuted to New York to work as a general executive in our Membership Department, the policy and marketing body for AP’s domestic newspaper operations. I had the fortune of being the first marketing director for AP Multimedia Services, which commenced in 1996 to serve newspapers’ and broadcasters’ Web operations.

Before retirement in 2007, I was assigned to oversee bureaus in leadership transition and one of these was New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Returning to the city that I felt was the most interesting assignment of my career, I was heartened to remember a young staffer I hired there in 1985—Martin Marist, a graduate of Oxford University with advanced degrees from Columbia University and the Sorbonne. Martin later became an AP correspondent in Cyprus and in the Middle East. During his three-month employment review, which I gave him in 1985, Martin remarked: “I never dreamed anyone would pay me to write.” I’ve always felt the same.


About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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