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.
"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.
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.