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Gene Miller

    Gene Miller, one of the great newsmen of America, died today. Crafty fellow that he was, he wrote his own obit in The Miami Herald. I hope everyone reads it. It's vintage Miller.

     "Gene Edward Miller, 76, newspaperman, died Friday morning at his home near South Miami. Cause: cancer, the family said. Noted Gene: ``Excellent health . . . except for a fatal disease.''

    And so on. It's funny, it's punchy, it's ironic, and it's completely unpretentious. Miller always wrote in a declarative, unvarnished, detail-driven, unsentimental style. It's increasingly out of fashion, no fault of his. He became an editor, but his own kind of editor, the type that only works on great stories. He was the writing coach and, in his spare moments, the office legend. If you were lucky you got an invitation to his home to drink his gin and listen stories from the golden days. [Von Drehle will discuss much of this in his usual incomparable fashion when he writes the appreciation of Miller for tomorrow's Style section. I hope Marc Fisher writes something, too. It's no secret that everyone at The Washington Post once worked for The Miami Herald.]

  His hair always needed combing, what was left of it. He was thin, always had a tan, always seemed amused about something, always laughed loud enough to be heard all the way to Fort Lauderdale. You heard his raspy voice once, you never forgot it. "Great copy!" he'd roar when he read a good paragraph in a story. He believed in yarns. He liked stories with scoundrels and saints and lunatics and people who got lucky at the edge of the precipice. He worked at the right place.

    He won two Pulitzers, saved people from Death Row. When he became an editor he made a new career for himself, putting flabby prose on a diet, making dull stories so compelling they'd rattle you all day long. In his office overlooking the bay, he'd let the reporter sit at the terminal, but he'd be right there, leaning over your shoulder, rasping away, concentrating, worrying every word on the screen, removing the chaff, hardening the prose, and making you hate yourself for not getting the kind of great quotes and details that Gene would have gotten.

    His trademark short, punchy sentences at the end of a paragraph were known as "the Miller chop." But when I think of Gene's craft, what stands out is the reporting. He was a detail magnet. He got details by asking questions, and then follow-ups, and sticking with it, even if the interviewee started to get annoyed, even if the questions seemed dumb. You never know what lint-speck of data will prove marvelous in the lede. I can imagine Gene at a murder scene, hammering at a cop or a coroner or the assistant D.A.: "So how many buttons were on this shirt? Did the shirt have a collar? Short sleeve? Wait, you say it had EPAULETTES?" Or whatever. Gene wouldn't leave the scene of a crime until he had everything he needed this side of the corpse itself.

    That's how I blew my first job interview: It was with Gene Miller and Pete Weitzel. Gene was the star reporter, Weitzel the managing editor, and they came to my college in early 1981 to interview potential interns. They asked me what I planned to do with my life and I made a flip comment about wanting someday to be in a Batman movie with a motorcycle theme. It was just some crazy jive I was slinging, but Miller -- that damn Gene Miller! -- kept asking follow-up questions. He wouldn't let it drop. Where would the movie be set? The desert? Who would be Robin? What kind of motorcycles? On and on. I was squirming, dying. Of course I didn't get the internship. "He just blew the interview," Weitzel told a friend of mine. No, it was Miller's fault. Too good a journalist. I loved the guy and was lucky to have had the chance, eventually, to learn from him.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 17, 2005; 1:41 PM ET
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