Otis Sanford: The Day’s not Complete for this Commercial Appeal Editorial Editor till Someone’s Angry with Him
By Toni Lepeska
Otis Sanford spends part of his days hearing from angry people.
Despite the angry folks, though, he loves his job as editor of opinions and editorials at The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal.
Almost daily, he gets an ear full from people who don’t agree with what he said in his column or with what someone else wrote in the editorial pages. Sanford takes it all in stride.
“You can’t have a thin skin,” said Sanford, a member of the University of Mississippi Alumni Hall of Fame.
Sanford, 57, said new reporters should not even consider writing opinion columns until they have done plenty of well-written, accurate reporting.
A 35-year newspaper veteran, Sanford began his love affair with newspapers as a child on the family farm in Como, Miss. Since his father was busy on the farm, Sanford would read the newspaper and report the contents to his father.
“He loved news, and I loved news,” Sanford said.
Sanford’s first reporting gig was in seventh grade when he wrote a sports story for the school paper. He later became editor of the high school paper, then joined the staff of the Ranger Rocket at Northwest Mississippi Community College. The newspaper won state awards, and Sanford became executive editor.
He then transferred to Ole Miss where he worked for The Daily Mississippian.
His first job out of college was in 1975 at The (Jackson, Miss.)Clarion-Ledger. He then worked as a reporter and assistant metro editor at The Commercial Appeal, then left in 1987 to become assistant city editor at The Pittsburgh Press. He went on to be deputy city editor of The Detroit Free Press before his return to The Commercial Appeal in 1994.
Former editor of The Commercial Appeal, Angus McEachran, hired Sanford. ““He’s the embodiment of integrity,” McEachran said of Sanford.
Sanford strongly recommends students immerse themselves in the field of journalism, getting as much hands-on experience as possible.
“The teachers were most helpful to me, but beyond that, working on the school paper … that was the most helpful,” he said. “I learned how to do journalism. I learned the value of good copy editing.
“I learned to pay attention to news. There’s no substitute for it. You have to do it to learn to do it.”
At the end of the 2010, Sanford will leave the newspaper to become the Helen and Jabie Hardin Chair of Economics and Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis College of Communications and Fine Arts. He also plans to study urban journalism and hopes to create a course studying the role the media has had in Memphis politics and race.
He will continue to write a weekly column in The Commercial Appeal, though, so he’ll likely continue to deal with those angry people. But he sees even the anger as a positive force for journalism, because at least those people are reading the newspaper.
“People respect what you have to say whether they agree with you or not,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article was written by UM journalism graduate Toni Lepeska, a former Commercial Appeal reporter, now a freelance writer. Many thanks to Toni for donating her time and talents.