At Large : Are we listening?
Speaking to a group of Islanders the other day, my topic was the history of The Martha's Vineyard Times and community newspapering.
As I began, I was reminded, as journalists are every day, that to be successful their work must be closely tuned to the melodies of real life, as it occurs outside the newspaper's pages. Here was a chance to get outside the office and straighten the record.
First, a word of caution. When you find yourself in the company of a journalist who talks pridefully about his newspaper as a paper of record, run. There are a few thousand weekly and daily newspapers in the United States, some good, some bad, and none complete. There are too many of you, of us, doing too much - some of it naughty - to keep track of it all. If you want a paper of record, you want something like the Congressional Record, which publishes the faithless claptrap, every blessed word of it, that passes for debate in Washington. Read it regularly, and you're assured of a bored, blind, and stupid old age.
The paper of record is a hoax. The real thing is the paper of insight, the paper of connection, of interpretive connection. That is what good newspapers try to be. And, sadly, in the newspaper hell of the first decade of the 21st century, it's what newspapers haven't been doing so well. Hence, all the brow-mopping over the future of newspapers.
How could we have screwed this up the way we have? Blame it on the web, if you like. Blame it on Google. Blame it on the TV, on reality television shows, on the gathering stupidity of Americans, on teenage ADHD, on political polarity, on, well, you name it. But, here was a business where the inventory of what you sell is manufactured daily by the audience. Newspapers don't have to go to gift shows, or fashion shows, or electronics shows, in the winter, in Las Vegas or New York, and pay good money up front to gather an inventory of things to sell in July or August. The inventory is made daily and delivered to the newspaper for repackaging and dissemination by the reporters and photographers. All we had to do was to be devoted listeners. But, too many newspapers and other news organizations forgot. They forgot that their readers and listeners make the news, and the newspaper merely repackages, interprets, and distributes that news. It's not about the writers or the news readers. It's about the newsmakers. And the goal is a faithful rendering of what the newsmakers - read neighbors - are up to.
And our goals should have people in mind. John R. Stilgoe says it nicely in his wonderful, illustrated examination of the littoral, "Alongshore" (Yale University, 1994). Mr. Stilgoe is examining the natural world but, as he puts the natural world in its important place, he also recognizes that it is, among other things, the "theater for human activity."
Remembering and rendering the endless productions staged in that theater may be the ultimate redemption for the news business.
Apart from its uncertain future, the newspaper business takes a pretty heavy pasting from critics who demand what they call objectivity. It's a troublesome concept. Objectivity is what politicians who've taken a beating in the press complain that journalists lack. It's what Comment posters complain of when the news story seems to favor a political leader or a view with which they are out of sympathy.
I like H.L. Mencken's objectivity. Mencken was a reporter and columnist who starred in the Baltimore Herald, and then the Baltimore Sun, for the first half of the last century. He was a linguist and a lexicographer as well as a newspaperman, and his prose was taut, and often it stung.
Joseph C. Goulden, who calls himself a Mencken buff, writes: "H.L. Mencken and American politics. He professed to detest the art - 'a carnival of buncombe' - and the men who practiced it, without even a passing nod at objectivity - 'I am completely neutral. I am against them all.'"
After Calvin Coolidge's victory in 1924, Mencken wrote: "The American people, having 35,717,342 native born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out the Hon. Mr. Coolidge to be the head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks, and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies."
Any thinking man or woman would appreciate Mencken, though his views often ran roughshod over what would be demanded these days in polite conversation.
What marked Mencken for literary and newspapering distinction was not dispassionate neutrality. It was not erudition. It was not even high-mindedness, something of which he was rarely accused. Instead, when you read Mencken you knew you were hearing Mencken, not a point of view he trotted out for the audience, not some champion's disguise he'd put on to lead a campaign, not a circulation-building sham. He was not singing to the choir. No, the reader discovered a passionately held understanding of what he was reporting, an understanding achieved by connecting himself to, by caring about, the people and events which were his subjects.