As a young reporter, Mark Leccese quit his job “almost 5 times a day.” Gradually, he learned “where, when and in which circumstances” he should fight for his story.
While this was a big change, it did not come just naturally to Leccese. It took passion towards his work and a strong commitment to learn and become better with time.
Leccese started his career as a journalist when he was 19 years old. He started working at the United Press International while in college. He says he learned journalism from the wire service editors.
“The wire service editors are very professional and very skilled at their craft,” Leccese says.
“When I started writing for them, I was a student. Working out of Springfield, Mass., every story I submitted to the editor and bureau chief, we would talk about and she would say, ‘Why didn’t you check this out? Why didn’t you call someone to get this information?’ So I learned where there were holes in my reporting and how to approach a story.”
He always knew he was a good reporter, but at this organization, he was learning how to write like a good reporter.
“I use to take the story that the editors had edited and lay it on the table next to my desk and lay it next to the story I have submitted and look at the two of them and compare them,” he says.
As he graduated, his dream was to be a wire service reporter. “I was interviewed and they said we like you but we don’t hire anyone right out of college. Go get experience at a mid-sized daily newspaper,” he says.
In the hope of going back, Leccese joined Fitchburg Sentinel as a reporter. He started off with the police beat and slowly moved up to the State House.
“I found it really really interesting that small city government was about street lights, potholes, schools and it was very close to people’s everyday lives,” Leccese says.
And thus, he replaced his old dream with a new one, i.e., to be a beat reporter for a newspaper. But this transition came with its own set of problems.
“When you step into the beat, there is so much you don’t know. There is so much information, things that have happened previously that you don’t know. But there is also so much you don’t know about government and how government works, and who you need to talk to on what stories. That just takes time.” Leccese says.
It took him almost a year and a half before he settled into his beat and became comfortable. From then on, “I felt like whatever broke that day, I could get my arms around. I knew the right people to call,” he says.
This was not the only challenge he faced as a beat reporter. The challenge also came from his audience.
“First couple of months, they read your stuff. They are looking to see ‘are you fair? are you accurate?’ And you have to prove yourself to them every day,” he says.
Disagreements with editors did also come up.
“Reporters tend to look at their editors as fat asses who sit around the newsroom all day, who aren’t out in the field reporting like they are and wouldn’t know good writing if it hit them between the eyes,” he says.
“Editors look at the reporters as Madonnas, dopes, who can’t get the basic things right and who mangle the English language.”
Not always their suggestions were taken unquestioned.
“While covering Statehouse, an editor said ‘You shouldn’t lead with this, you should lead with this.’ And I said, ‘How do you know? I am the one in city hall every day.’ So there were those kinds of arguments,” he says.
But as a young reporter, he learned from, especially the ones who impart good lessons.
Leccese remembers his interaction with an editor for a weekend story on a ballot question. He was told to shorten his story in an innovative way.
These lessons he took with him to his next job as the Statehouse bureau chief at Community Newspaper Company (now Wicked Local). Every day his job started the same way.
“For me, it was to talk to this guy, Russ. Every morning, he would be like ‘What have you got today?’ because you are a beat reporter, you have to know what’s going on,” he says.
This changed for him after he quit his job, and started freelancing.
“When you are a freelancer, not staff, every story is about pitching it to the editor because you want them to pay you money. The editor is going to know about their publications and what their publication is all about and what kind of story it uses and what it needs,” he says.
His stories as a freelancer went through several layers of editing, before finally going to the top editor of the organizations where final cuts were made. Now as an experienced reporter, he realizes that good editors are gold.
“Someone who can take a Mark Leccese story and make it a better Mark Leccese story, I love. An editor named Jane Smith might take a Mark Leccese story and might make it a Jane Smith story, that’s easy for her, she has written thousands of them. But a Jane Smith who can take a Mark Leccese story and make a better Mark Leccese story, those people I am grateful to,” he says.
Working as an editor
Leccese felt like he had come a full circle when he became the associate editor for the Boston Business Journal, 25 years later from when he had started.
“The biggest different between online and newspaper was speed. If something happened on the website, I could get it out right now. In wire service, the deadlines are every minute,” he says while citing the similarities between his first job and as an online editor.
His goal was simple, i.e., to not repeat the same mistakes that his editors made.
“I always tried to explain to the reporter why I made the decisions I made. Why I changed their lede, why I put their story on A14 instead of A1 because I felt like I never got enough of that. People just changed my story,” he says.
Leccese now works as an associate professor at Emerson College.
Although his vast experience comes in handy when he is teaching reporting and writing to his students, the most important thing, he says is to “do the work. Put in the work. Nothing, especially in journalism, nothing can replace hard work. Without hard work, talent is meaningless. It just is.”