Star-Telegram reporter turned author finds newspaper skills served him well in new profession

Posted Sunday, Jul. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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witt When I joined the Star-Telegram in 1986 as editor in charge of covering local news, one of the first reporters I met was Jeff Guinn. If you had told me then that Jeff would become one of the best and most-respected true-crime authors in the country, I would have been flabbergasted. Actually, I still am flabbergasted.

It’s not that Jeff didn’t have talent, because he did. I’ll tell you in a minute about the great career Jeff had at the Star-Telegram. It’s just that you don’t expect someone you personally know to become famous or gain recognition on a national level.

Jeff has a new book coming out, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, and it is excellent, just as were his recent books Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde and The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How It Changed the American West.

Look for my review of Jeff’s new book on the front of the Life section Aug. 6, the day it goes on sale.

Jeff was a good writer in 1986, but not the best writer at the paper at the time or probably even in the Top 10 because we had a pretty formidable group of people. Our travel editor and author of Amon, the legendary Jerry Flemmons, held that title.

But what Jeff had were great investigative skills. The first thing I saw him take on was the Tarrant Appraisal District, the tax guys. He and reporter Keith Matulich wrote a series of stories that eventually led to TAD chief appraiser Nelson Eichman resigning from the agency.

Later, Jeff spent a week on the streets of Fort Worth as a homeless person and wrote powerfully about his experience. To illustrate the attitude most of us have when we’re approached by one of these unfortunate souls, Jeff wasn’t even recognized by his co-workers when he asked them for help on the streets even though he did nothing to conceal his identity. He became invisible even to his best friends.

His stories led to the city creating a homeless shelter downtown.

But Jeff’s ambition had always been to be books editor at the Star-Telegram. When Larry Swindell retired, I appointed Jeff to that position in 1999 after I became executive editor of the paper.

And Jeff was a fantastic books editor. He established great relationships with publishers and writers, and as a result the Star-Telegram got exclusive access to many hot books and writers that other papers couldn’t get.

We also started a series of interviews in which Jeff would question authors like Tom Clancy on stage at the convention center ballroom, and the events drew thousands.

But Jeff didn’t just want to be books editor. He also wanted to be an author himself. He had turned a column he had written about Santa Claus into a three-novel series that was a great success, and in 2005 he left the paper to write full-time.

Since then he’s signed deals with Simon & Schuster to write nonfiction books and with Putnam to write fiction. I’m a Bonnie and Clyde buff, and his book about them was the best version I’ve ever read.

I’m also fascinated by Charles Manson and have read plenty about him, too. And again, Jeff’s book surprised me with details I didn’t know.

Jeff’s books are packed with facts, and he credits the skills he perfected as an investigative reporter at the Star-Telegram as the reason. Unlike most authors, Jeff submerges himself in the topic and even goes to the places where the events took place to get a feel for them.

In doing research on Manson, Jeff read nearly 100 books about the murders before doing any reporting on his own.

And Jeff’s conversational writing style is compelling; he really does a great job of putting the reader right there. In January he starts his next project, about Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. I can’t wait!

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704 Twitter: @jimelvis

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