A living laboratory for good writing

Professor Joseph B. Treaster discusses a writing assignment with sophomores Emmalyse Brownstein, right, and Estefanía Caputo in the courtyard of the School of Communicaton. Photo: Peter E. Howard/University of Miami

By Maya Bell

Professor Joseph B. Treaster discusses a writing assignment with sophomores Emmalyse Brownstein, right, and Estefanía Caputo in the courtyard of the School of Communicaton. Photo: Peter E. Howard/University of Miami

A living laboratory for good writing

By Maya Bell
Veteran journalist Joseph B. Treaster draws on his continuing work for The New York Times to convey the lessons of good writing to communication students.

Joe Treaster had the jitters. The cub reporter for The Miami Hurricane knew hardly anything about Claude Pepper or U.S. policy on China. Yet, he had to cover a China speech by the Florida congressman for the student newspaper.

“I was sweating,” Treaster told students in one of the Writing for the Digital Age classes he now teaches as a professor in the School of Communication. “It was like throwing you in the deep end of the pool in icy water.”

Decades later, Treaster still sweats his stories. Not the ones he shares in his required writing classes for all communication majors, but those he continues to write as a contributor to The New York Times 11 years after he left the paper to join the University of Miami.

 “I’m trying to make every story as good as I can,” he said. “That’s why I keep doing it. I never get it quite perfect.”

During his more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and domestic reporter for the Times, Treaster’s byline,  Joseph B. Treaster, appeared in the nation’s flagship newspaper thousands of times, from dozens of countries, on scores of subjects—from war and politics, to disasters and drug trafficking, to obituaries and everyday life. On Sunday, his byline appeared again, over a piece about street art. In it, Treaster explores the global phenomenon of street art by showcasing the striking murals that have been turning up on the walls of warehouses, bars, restaurants, grocery stores and condo and office buildings around Miami.

Street art was not a subject Treaster knew much about when he suggested it to Times editors, who still turn to him to cover one of his specialties, hurricanes, and other stories. But he tackled it with characteristic gusto and energy, spending weeks reporting, writing, condensing and rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting the article. Yes, he rewrote it, particularly the lead, multiple times, a fact he recently shared with his students to emphasize the lessons he never misses the opportunity to impart: Good writing requires precision, clarity, brevity, and most of all, rewriting.

“I’m the model,” he told a dozen public relations, broadcast, advertising and journalism students who were discussing the 150-word bios he had assigned them. “I’m a living creature who actually writes all the time and I know it’s hard to write a first draft that’s really good. Write it, walk away, come back, and rewrite it.”

A scrappy boxer and fearless motorcycle racer in his youth, Treaster never walks away from teaching or reporting. He often combines the two. When he led UM’s summer study-abroad program in the Galapagos Islands, where students sharpened their critical thinking and writing skills by communing with nature, he got a whiff of a breaking news story. Forty-eight hours later it was in the Times: A young, flip-flop-wearing, bike-riding woman had just been appointed director of the Galapagos National Park, one of the world’s environmental treasures.

Last week, he shared his street art story with his students, showing them the version he filed and how Times editors changed it for both the print and online platforms. The exercise had a subtle but clear message: You’re never too experienced or talented to do better. As he told the class, editors are often the lifeguards in the deep end of the icy pool. 

He has a reputation for being tough and demanding, which is how he describes teaching. Students who skip class or arrive late, lose points. He analyzes stories in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with his students and runs his classes like newsroom conferences with lots of give and take. “When you get students engaged,” he said, “you get great results.” He is almost always available to coach students through writing assignments, even those that didn’t originate with him.

Sophomore Emmalyse Brownstein, who just transferred to UM to study journalism and theatre arts and aspires to be an editor, said Treaster helped her with probably 10 drafts of the first story she wrote for the Hurricane.

“I had never written anything like that before and I didn’t know where to begin,” said Brownstein, who calls Treaster the best professor she’s had in college. “I asked him if he had time to look at it again and he said, ‘If you send it, I don’t think I can resist.’ He always takes the time because, honestly, that’s just who he is. He can’t help but make writing better.”

When Treaster first joined the faculty to focus on water and environmental issues as the Knight Chair for Cross-Cultural Communication, he refrained from accepting assignments from the Times. He thought it might be considered disloyal to the University. But over time he realized he needed to stay in the game, not only for his sake, but because his students benefitted, too.

“It dawned on me that writing for the Times could make me a better professor and be good for the University and the students,” said Treaster, who also advises UM’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and created the online environmental magazines OneWater.org and TheMiamiPlanet.org.

Joseph B.. Treaster in London
Joseph B. Treaster addresses students during the London study abroad program.

Five years ago, he used his connections as a foreign correspondent to set up UM’s summer study abroad program in London, which gives students an insider’s view of the BBC, Edelman, and other global news, public relations and advertising organizations—and of the kind of careers they are striving for in the world of global communication.

As the co-director of both the Galapagos and London programs, lecturer Heidi Carr has spent weeks at a time with Treaster, and is still amazed by his exuberant curiosity.

“Joe never stops. He was born to be a reporter. He’s always asking questions. He never goes out in public without a notepad,” said Carr, a former Miami Herald assignment editor. “He’s so full of joy. He whistles when he walks. He ekes out every little drop of syrup from the tree of life. That’s probably why he became a journalist—so he could explore it all.”

A Florida native, Treaster fell in love with newspapers, and the stories in them, when his father closed his general store on the edge of the Everglades and took a job as a circulation manager for The Miami News. The senior Treaster supervised teams of newsboys who not only delivered Miami’s now long-defunct afternoon daily, but sold subscriptions to it.

His eldest son was among them and, at 10 years old, became the team’s best salesman because the boy knew and loved his product. On street corners and in bars, little Joey Treaster would regale prospective subscribers with the marvels they’d find on the pages of the News, from columns by humorist Art Buchwald to some of the nation’s best sports writing.

“My dad inspired me,” Treaster said. “When he taught me how to sell the paper, he told me about the stories in it, and the reporters who wrote them. It sounded like such an exciting life.” 

By age 13, he wrote his first news story for a youth paper. By high school, he was publishing his own tabloid, The Megaphone. The paper kept Treaster and fellow professional motorcycle racers informed about the venues and times of upcoming races.

At Miami Technical High School, where Treaster was surrounded by future engineers, he was more inclined to writing, becoming sports editor of the school paper. He later landed a journalism scholarship at UM, where he became editor of Tempo, the precursor to Distraction magazine, and reported part time for the Miami Herald. He spent one summer as a reporter at The Hollywood Sun-Tattler and another at a paper in Peoria, Illinois, where he wrote about the best blueberry pie and the beefiest cow at the county fair.

He still regrets turning down the editorship of the Hurricane because, he thought at the time, he should concentrate on Tempo.

But, as Treaster reminds his students, pressure breeds creativity. He discovered that when he covered Congressman Pepper’s China talk on campus and when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Stationed in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam he was, thanks to his newspaper background, assigned to escort foreign correspondents who were hunting news stories.

Treaster had plenty of good ones to suggest, and eventually the Times hired him to assist the newspaper’s foreign correspondents in Vietnam.  During his first day on the job, he wrote his first story for the Times, about the USO’s Thanksgiving celebration in Saigon. It ran under the anonymous byline, “Special to The New York Times,” but before long the byline Joseph B. Treaster began appearing regularly in the paper, and has ever since.