The Observatory

The Truth Shall Set You Laughing

Jeremiah Horrigan

Jeremiah Horrigan
New Paltz, New York, USA
February 04
Working Copy
Former Knight of the Altar, St. Martin's parish in South Buffalo, NY. Old enough to remember ducking-and-covering from the nukes that Sister Jeanne assured us were coming our way, defending Santa Claus until age 10, hating playing sports, wanting to fly, escaping to Westchester County for three years, re-escaping to Buffalo for most of high school, escaping to Fordham U long enough to drop out, escaping school, getting political, getting arrested, getting tried, convicted and released for crimes against the draft. Husband to Patty, father to Grady and Annie. Housepainter, cab driver, idiot, then newspaper reporter in Poughkeepsie, years of freelancing (Sports Illustrated, New York Times, Negligent Mother Magazine) and shameful indulgence, followed finally by 18 more years of reporting, column-writing, some awards, discoveries large and small along the way, including these: Sister Jeanne was full of beans, writing is good for the soul and I'm the luckiest man alive.


Jeremiah Horrigan's Links
MARCH 30, 2009 10:23PM

I wrote the news today, oh boy. . . .

Rate: 16 Flag

This past weekend's front-page focus at OS on the parlous state of journalism held more than a theoretical or ideological interest for me. I'm a newspaper reporter, so there's nothing abstract about the issues surrounding whether and how newspapers will survive.

Everybody has a theory about "the media" and its role in society. I thought it might be useful, amid all the theorizing, demonizing and ideological assertions to provide a factual backgrounder detailing the facts of a typical eight-hour shift in the life of a daily news reporter. 
So here's how it looks from where I work, at a mid-size upstate New York daily -- a just-the-facts-m'am story that might, in some small, Jack Webbian way, set the record straight.
To paraphrase Jack Webb even further, the story you are about to read is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, as well as the guilty. (If you find yourself wondering where the  thrills in this tale lie, if you perhaps begin to wonder why you're reading it, bear with me. This story is meant for you.)
I rolled into the office last Friday morning. I knew what story I'd be pursuing -- my editor had gotten a call a few days before from a member of a local library board. Their new building had been vandalized, to the tune of several thousand dollars. Borderline news. Vandalism is nothing new. But there was an angle: the board member as much as said he knew who had done the damage. He suspected, with apparent good cause, some neighbors whose property borderd the new building, had taken done the deeds.
This was news. I called the board member and confirmed he was still willing to go public.He was  eager to talk. So I arranged to meet him in an hour, at the library, to inspect the damage and hear whatever else there was to hear. A photo was out of the question due to a lack of photographers. I'd write a 10-inch story -- roughly a story as long as the first five paragraphs of this post --  for the next day's paper.
It took about 20 minutes to get to the library, where I was given a quick tour, introduced to a few more board members and some employees and shown some of the damage. The library designed to look like the small country railroad depot that had once stood at the edge of the town's block-long "center," which hadn't grown much in the past hundred years.

"Bill," the board member, told me the primary issue was the library's outdoor parking lot lighting system. He showed me the evidence: the plastic coverings surround the metal-halide lamps of ten or so hip-high fixtures had been spray-painted black on only one side -- the side facing the neighbors' yards. I agreed with Bill that this didn't look like the work of bored teenagers.
While I was winding up the interview, I saw a man trot cautiously across the parking lot with two dogs in tow. Bill told me he was one of the neighbors he suspected of vandalizing the lights. I raced out to catch the guy, who I'll call Bob.
I confronted Bob with what Bill had told me. He acknowledged he was upset with the lights and had gone so far as to put  cardboard boxes on two of the ones that were shining directly into his bedroom. But he hadn't done the spray painting and he didn't know who had.

We got to talking. He was a retired social worker who ran baseball clinics in the summer. We talked a little sports. He seemed a reasonable and likable guy. He told me the library had ignored several invitations to visit him and his wife and talk about the problem. It wasn't as simple an issue as the library contended it was, he said.. I asked him how he would summarize the situation. He said he thought it was time for a sit-down. We shook hands. I grabbed lunch and went back to the office and began to write the story. I'd been on the job about four hours.

I received a call from Bill when I got in from lunch. He was nervous about what Bob had said to me and wanted a chance to respond, to get "equal time," as he put it, since he'd helped me identify Bob. I told him the gist of what Bob had said, including the information about inviting the board over to talk about the problems. Bill said the board met in public sessions and that was the time and place for such meetings.I said that information would probably be part of the story and hung up.

At about 2 p.m., Bob called and said I should talk to his his wife. Before I could demur, feeling I'd heard enough of the particulars, Bob said she'd once been a member of the library board. Oh. The plot was thickening. I went back to writing the story, hoping that Sue would indeed ive me a call..

At 3 sharp, just as he'd promised, Bob's wife Sue called me.She was a big supporter of the library, still very glad it had been built. But the lights, she said, were like those piercing white-blue headlights you see at night on new cars. "It's like an airstrip here at night," she said.

I incorporated her statements into the story, which I filed at about 4 p.m.It was, I told my editor, a story about good people being at loggerheads with each other. Kind of sad, I said. He booked the story to run at the bottom of page 3.He didn't say it was a slow news day. He didn't have to.

 I spent the rest of the afternoon trying unsuccessfully to clear my desk and dredging about for a story for Tuesday's paper. A family emergency sent me out of the office a little earlier than usual.

If you've managed to read this far, my congratulations. The day was no more exciting to experience than it has been to recount. Nothing was revealed. I had little expectation that what I'd said to Bill or Bob or what they would read in the next day's paper would do anything to heal the tiny, festering wound in the life of the community they were both trying to deal with. The story might even have made things worse. I had no way of telling and I still don't know.

I've had lots of better, more interesting, exciting and dramatic days in and out of the newsroom. Those are the days reporters tend to remember and write about when we're feeling misunderstood or under-appreciated, which, along with feeling underpaid and overworked, are the predominant emotions you'll find in a newsroom.

But that's my point. Friday was a perfectly typical day at the office for me. In that day's work and in that very routine story, no political oxen were gored. No innocent bystanders were crushed beneath the weight of my ill-concealed liberal bias.The technology I used to tell the story has been in use newsrooms for well over a decade. Even though I'm pushing 60, I know how to use a computer and am only too happy to file my stories online. 

In writing this story, I consulted no citizen journalists. I had only my experience as both a reporter and a human being, a member of a flesh-and-blood, bricks-and-mortar community to suss out its meanings. I Googled nothing. I worried not a bit that in writing it, I could be providing fodder for basement-dwelling screwballs who might feel inspired to "comment" on the perniciousness of library boards, unpredictability of neighbors or the well-known joys of vandalsim. I worried instead about get the quotes exact, the names correctly spelled. I might not have been happy to have to cram as the story's essential facts as gracefully and accurately as I knew how into a 10-inch column of newsprint, but I know this and I know it well: it sure beat trying to tell a balanced, interesting and accurate story in 140 characters.

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Excellent post for all kinds of reasons. You really can't replace the human touch and legwork in reporting and analyzing issues. Unfortunately, those that need to read and understand it the most, probably won't do either. rated
It is as Emma says. Without reporters on the front line we will be reduced to receiving our news in a glorified whisper down the lane manner, with all the gross exaggerations and profligate mistakes the term implies.
An excellent story -- what community journalism is all about.
Your post also begs an interesting question. I recently read that some local newspapers were replacing reporters with writers--in India--because they could cover meetings online. I have nothing against folks from India and know we all have to make a living, but it begs the question: how accountable to getting the story will someone be who is not part of the community? What nuance would be lost as well since these folks are not familiar with culture and custom, not to mention the opportunity to talk to several folks involved in a story as you did?

As for citizen journalists, they are not trained reporters. There is a big difference.
Your post also begs an interesting question. I recently read that some local newspapers were replacing reporters with writers--in India--because they could cover meetings online. I have nothing against folks from India and know we all have to make a living, but it begs the question: how accountable to getting the story will someone be who is not part of the community? What nuance would be lost as well since these folks are not familiar with culture and custom, not to mention the opportunity to talk to several folks involved in a story as you did?

As for citizen journalists, they are not trained reporters. There is a big difference.
I put in a stint as a journalist. You couldn't pay me to put up with this shit any more, but I have respect for you for doing it--somebody has too. I make a living doing things you wouldn't believe, but at least they are honorable to some. Hugs,
Emma: "The human touch" -- that's right. That's what you labor to bring to any story, even if no one's looking for it.

Ablonde: Thanks. I've never heard that phrase, "whisper down the lane" before, but I think it perfectly describes the grim potentialities of certain alternative approaches to newsgathering, as Dina points out below.

Steve -- You've been there. You know. Thanks.

Dina: I read that story too. Outsourcing local reporters? Can you imagine seeing a story you felt was important to you -- a school closing, a tax hike, the cancellation of a senior lunch program -- reported and written by someone who used to struggle to tell you what was wrong with your inkjet printer? These exploited souls, who, as I remember, were equally bollixed by local laws as they were by idiomatic expressions, would have absolutely no chance to talk to the people affected by official meetings. It sounds like a joke, but I'm not laughing.

Ben: A lot of us got into the business in the wake of Watergate. Journalism may be the last refuge of the pie-eyed romantic. Turns out, bringing down a corrupt president was a once-in-a-lifetime gig, and it wasn't part of the job description. But romantics die hard. Thanks.
Not only did that day "beat trying to tell a balanced, interesting and accurate story in 140 characters," blogging that same news wouldn't have allowed you the time or even the presumption of the reader that you cared about accuracy. Instead, they could refresh your 140-character blog until boredom struck, then move on to the next half-assed newsblog.
Kudos to you for finding satisfaction during what some may see as a drab and slow day. (rated)
For God's sake, Jeremiah, how can you say it was not an exciting day? The Bill-Bob imbroglio had me mesmerized...

Well...I'm exaggerating a bit. But it's funny how such an insignificant-in-the-scope- of- things
human story, if pursued indefinitely, would probably
continue to mushroom in meaning& significance.
There are no insignificant human actions, I'm coming to realize, just minds not blessed with nuanced consideration.

Fascinating look at the banality of street-level journalism...Jim.rated
The mention of outsourcing local reportage to India dumbfounds me. I can only recall "The Heart of Darkness" and Kurtz' dying words, "The horror. The horror."

At the risk of sounding like one of those dreaded protectionists, this is outsourcing gone too far. Then again, it's no more shocking than the thought of Twitter as the new teletype of journalism. We're coming full circle, back to the days when the news was distributed via drums in the jungle....
Twenty year ago I was where you are today. Part of a dying industry. It is sad to watch entire industries die these slow deaths because it is watching a way of life disappear. Over the last fifty years we have slowly watched as traditional American values have disappeared and have been replaced with contemporary philosophy. The way we act as consumers today does not even resemble the way most Americans lived fifty years ago. How many of us eat a substantial part of our die from our gardens? How many times do we know the owners of a business that we go to? Except in large innercity areas, how many of us walk down to the local grocery to pickup the lettuce we need for dinner. How many of us think of the local high school football game as our entertainment for the weekend.

Unfortunately we have become a global society. Our consumption, our entertainment, our services are provided by people we don't know. Too often they are people in foreign countries we don't know. I am afraid that we have been so preoccupied discarding and destroying that which was uniquely ours that we have left ourselves unable to solve our own problems. If electricity, water, and banks were shutdown for six months, how many of us would survive.
THE RASHOMON EFFECT: ... "the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.
" ... (the effect) is named for Akira Kurosawa's film 'Rashomon', in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways. The film is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa."

Source: Wikipedia


Yes, Jeremiah, I read this morning that the Chicago Sun-Times is joining the Chicago Tribune in bankruptcy, perhaps the first example, in the current era, of two major American dailies going down in the same major market city.

My hometown paper, the Boston Globe, is reported to be losing $1 million a week, and the New York Times, which owns the Globe, is probably trying to unload it as it tries to save itself.

Anyway, about your piece here, as a example of a real reporter's effort to get the story, to interview "both sides" - and, in the note-taking and visiting of the property in dispute - do what a trained, "straight" reporter does: write a an interesting story which buries your voice in the text so the principals can be heard and the outlines of the issues involved between them can be understood. In ten column inches!

For anyone who blogs, with their finely turned opinions and clever phrasing - absent any time actually operating in a newsroom and actually reporting - it would be a challenge for such writers to do what you describe.

You have to learn how to see the outlines of a news story, by going to the "scene" while taking into account the "Rashomon effect" - and then, before writing, try to answer the basic questions: What happened; to whom did it happen; when; where; and perhaps, why? After answering the questions, you write; and you don't write in the first person. You write in the third and present a narrative, a fair picture of a small reality, based on the facts you've established.

That's it as far as daily reporting goes, and it has nothing to do with telling readers what "you think."

I actually believe that, with the demise of hard copy newspapers as a business, with the jobbing out of stories to Indian scribblers, and the tendency on blogs for writers of all kinds to weigh in with their thoughts (and have hammer and tong fights that go on for days, accomplishing nothing), we're all in big trouble now as far as finding out what is really going on in this country. Trained and experienced daily reporters, as a class of workers, are worth about as much these days as fender installers in Detroit.

But that's just my opinion.
Thanks for this Jeremiah. It sounds like a day on the job for me... except that I never get out of the office with just one story. We have but two full time reporters on staff. Underpaid and overworked indeed. I'm finishing up a politics piece (house bill at the General Assembly might affect local schools) and getting ready to head out the door to cover a high school baseball game.

But then again, I don't work at a Daily. we're just three times a week.
Tip O'Neill said that all politics is local; so it is with news reportage. It's fundamentally about neighbours, communities, what Jim called the 'banalities'. Without this informational perspective, how can we hope to engage with global concerns, universal themes? My information 'fix' is the daily newspaper and I appreciate what you've shared in this post.
Aaron: Thanks -- when people talk about bloggers somehow stepping into the breach, I wonder what planet they're from. I love blogging (at least as I experience it here) but just because news reporting and blogging share fingers and a keyboard doesn't make them inter-changeable. It's like saying that because lots of people eat hamburger, when the family farm finally dies, everyone can become a cattle rancher -- we'll all have internalized the makings of cows.

James E. -- As ever, you describe the essential truth - "There are no insignificant human actions." Journalism holds out the possibility of discovering that all the time. As Edgar points out, time is the reporter's enemy -- there's always something else needs to be done. But sometimes -- & I can give examples -- you catch a break and a story that tells the tale, and those are the times you never forget.

James P -- I had an editor, a grand guy haunted by his own demons and the insanity that sometimes emerged from on high, who would mutter those very words after a morning meeting. Come to think of it, maybe jungle drums aren't such a bad idea. Everyone at least hears the same story at the same time.

My classy friend: Agreed. Too true. Sometimes I feel like a stone mason staring at the Seagram Building. Journalism is, after all, a craft. Pete Hamill (probably the country's quintessential newspaperman) calls it "our imperfect craft." He knows. He's one of the good guys in a field abounding in them. I've met a lot of people in a lot of businesses, professions and trades, from presidents to, well, stone masons and I've never seen any way of life that's produced more or better good guys than the one I'm in. That knowledge helps me get past the feeling that I'm standing on the wrong side of history. Where would the library board be without me?

Dirigo: What a generous (and accurate) contribution to the story. To add any more to your argument would be gilding the lily. 'Nuff said. Many thanks.

Edgar: I hear you. It was indeed unusual to have the time to pursue this story. Today as more typical -- a morning foner (interrupted by call-phone breakdown) followed by, beginning to writ that, then off to the county office building for a dog-and-pony with the new county exec, who stands accused by the minority leader of spending too much on his office furniture. Then back to office to write that up and marvel aloud at what we do in a day. Ain't it a kick though?

"Psychomama" -- I've been to Ireland twice and love reading the papers I found -- the local weeklies were full of news about horse auctions and other such lively things. And the news columns in the big city editions seemed as elegantly crafted as the opinion pieces. As you know, my daughter's headed over your way later this year, thereby providing hope for me that I'' soon be re-visiting those pages, together with a good Irish breakfast. Cheers!
A job well done, on this post and as a reporter. It's this type of expertise and skill that's slowly fading away all across America. I find the younger generation, eager and enthusiastic it is, often knows more about how to set up a web page than how to report out a story. For that I actually blame the education tract at universities.

When skills like this leave the newsroom through buyouts and layoffs, we all lose.
You know that saying, "You don't know what you got till it's gone?"

I can't help but think that's our fate. The Rocky Mountain News has been dead for almost a month and already readers and former employees are trying to conjure a way to resurrect it.

If they don't have us anymore, Jeremiah, the radio and TV people won't have anything to rip and read. And then good folks will walk around blind while their governments spend their money irresponsibly. They won't know about the school down the street that's putting its lessons on YouTube to ask, "Why aren't we doing that, too?" They won't know to applaud when a firefighter saves a little kid.

Who knows. They might even turn the lights out. In your case here, that might be good news.
Magnificent writing. Magnificent journalism. Great story. Not only did I read it to the end, I'm hooked good and proper! Was there a follow-up? How did it all pan out? That's gotta be worth another couple of 10 inchers.

And what an antidote to the post I read just prior to reading this: a sniping, carping, opinionated "advice" piece by a self-styled "political journalist". If challenged, I suspect he'll metamorphose into a "columnist". Reading you makes one understand journalism is a profession. And it is a particularly difficult one to practice well since ego must be subservient to objectivity. You practice it well.

Which leads me to last, parochial (let's just call it local :-)) point. Why did it take me 15 days to find this post? In fact, I wouldn't have found it had I not seen that Jeffery Pijanowski (I was reading his post on the NYT) had commented here. And why does this not get an EP or Cover, when our "political journalist" gets an automatic? Just venting. Guess we'll never know.

Cav: Many thanks. You're absolutely correct about professionalism being critical to the seemingly mundane task of news gathering. I suspect many blog-oriented writers (among whom I number myself) would say you couldn't pay me enough to do such stuff -- and that, I believe, is a big, big problem when the pundits technophiles talk about the end of newspapers. Googling up your facts (where facts even enter into the picture) is easier than pie. Schlepping into town to buttonhole the willing and unwilling and piece together a fair summation of what's going on takes a little getting used to and sure won't land the ambitious blogonaut on anyone's front page. But it's most of what local newspapers -- that is, newspaper reporters -- do. None of us ever thinks we're paid enough to do it, and we're not, but somehow we get it done and sometimes even feel proud about it at the end of the day (before the call goes out to budget up for the next day's stories.

As for the folo, I'll be looking back into it to see what's happening & will let you know. Thanks for asking.

One question: "Caveat Canem Croceam" Beware the (. . . .) Dog?
Should I be worried?
There's a movement afoot right now, from what I hear, to allow community papers to claim non-profit status. When I read something like this, I'm not sure that's such a bad idea. Would it be such a bad thing if the blogosphere took over some the money making aspects of the media, celebrity journalism, opinion, etc.? While some of the civic responsibilities of journalism were given the same kind of stable funding that public broadcasting gets. We have more of that in Canada, and sometimes a mix of private and public. While it's a hard time right now in print journalism, if it leads to a restructuring of funding, it might actually give more stability to good journalism in the long run....Maybe.
Juliet: Thanks for chiming in. I've been intrigued by the possibility of non-profit status as well and I thank you for not only bringing it up but telling me something I didn't know about it -- that it's used in Canada. I know some federal legislation has been offered but I lost track of the debate. One rap against it is that papers wouldn't be able to endorse candidates for office. This hardly happens anymore anyway, and to the extent that it does, it hardly matters. (How many folks do you suppose voted for Hillary Clinton because the NYT endorsed her?) Reporters, in any case, have a as huge a disdain for the pontifications of their editorial pages as they do for the O'Reills and Olbermans of the news world. So yeah, though the editorial page writers may get all het up about it, why not look at the public-private model? What have we got to lose, except an imperfect but invaluable institution?