Reporting for work
I wanted to intern at The Martha's Vineyard Times this summer to test the waters of journalism. I have always been an avid creative writer, but until this summer, I had no journalism experience whatsoever. I assumed that the most difficult part of the internship would be adjusting my writing to fit the exacting standards of news journalism. However, what I learned after only a few days working for The Times was that the writing was only a part of my entire experience. Working at The Times changed the way I looked at the Island, its people, and its politics. It also changed the way I looked at newspapers. I used to read newspapers without thinking about the effort that went into creating them. I never knew that stories that come out on Thursdays have to be updated constantly until Wednesday night so that they can have the latest, most accurate information. I never knew that journalists sometimes search for hours to find the right word for a headline, because minor details can have a strong effect on the story's meaning. And I certainly never knew what the atmosphere in a newsroom was like. I imagined eager news journalists huddling over their phones, eating donuts, engaged in secret conversation in the hopes of cracking some scandal. While I was correct in assuming that journalists would be on the phone much of the time, I was incorrect in predicting the general environment. I didn't realize that many more people than just the reporters help produce a weekly paper. There are people to do the advertising, the classifieds, the circulation, the web page, and of course, the entire Calendar section.
I was lucky enough to write about a variety of topics this summer. My first article was about the construction of a new firehouse on Chappaquiddick, and my last was about college kids on the Island going back to school. Some of my articles were stories I was assigned to, and others were ones I pursued on my own. One story I ended up covering by accident involved the Midnight Rider, the abandoned scallop vessel from New Bedford that washed up on Norton Point Beach and remained there for several weeks until it was finally towed off. I spotted the boat from my window on the morning of its stranding and went to Norton Point to find out what I could. Suddenly, an excursion I had taken out of sheer curiosity morphed into a major news story.
The boat's presence caused quite a commotion, not to mention a disruption and inconvenience, especially to the Trustees of Reservations, the conservation group that oversees the beach. Since the boat remained grounded for several weeks, I had to write an updated article each week about the situation. Everyone I talked to about the boat seemed to have a different opinion about why it ended up there and why it was taking so long for it to be removed. At times, I felt overwhelmed with the different information I had gathered, and I was unsure what to write. What I learned was that as a journalist, it wasn't my job to come to any conclusion or form an opinion. It was my job to state the facts, and let the readers form their own opinions. Knowing this obviously changed the way I wrote my articles, but it also affected the way I read newspapers. I realized that while certain journalists these days choose to write with their own "voices," it is solely the readers' responsibility to interpret facts in their own way.
Everyone always has his or her own opinions about one thing or another, especially in a small place like the Vineyard. When I first started working at the paper, I was startled by the passions with which people fought for what they believed in here. I thought to myself, "How can people get so riled up about docking or fishing regulations when we're at war in Iraq?" I realized that issues that appear small to some usually mean the world to others.
Furthermore, one could argue that these apparently local issues are sometimes more important than global ones, as they affect people more immediately and personally. While someone unfamiliar with the Island could easily write off certain issues addressed in and out of the paper as petty, they are usually far from it. From my observations of many of these conflicts, I have come to the conclusion that the root of the problem usually sprouts from an intense love of the Vineyard. Islanders love their Island and will do anything to defend it. While this is honorable, it often results in disagreement.
Milton Mazer, M.D., founder of the Martha's Vineyard Mental Health Center, in his People and Predicaments: Of Life and Distress on Martha's Vineyard, published in 1976, closely examines various Island residents' lives, troubles, and occasional neuroses. When describing the unique social politics on the Island, he writes, "For better or worse, people either know each other or know much about each other. This does not mean that encounters are always friendly and cooperative. Although people generally meet face to face, they often find themselves back to back. Conflict is in fact as necessary as consensus to the solution of the community's problems, and indifference stifles both."
Although much has changed on the Island since 1976, Dr. Mazer's theory seems to be timeless. Having opinions is not a crime, nor is making those opinions known. What is actually the bigger problem is indifference. Anyone who truly loves the Vineyard cannot help but avoid indifference if he or she keeps up to date with the Island news; this, I believe, is a good thing. It is rare to find a place whose inhabitants care so deeply about their home.
As I head to school this week, I am still unsure about whether journalism is for me. However, I am ending this summer having gained much more knowledge than I anticipated. And I am grateful for having had this opportunity to observe Island life at such close range and in such depth. Not only am I certain that I benefited greatly from this internship, but I hope that I might have helped others as well.
The Times plays a vital role in Island life, and I am glad to have been a part of that. In Dr. Mazer's book, he says, "If news is defined as events of public concern, then certainly most of what happens on the Island - in the courts, in government, in weather or the tides - is of general interest."
Julia Spiro, a Chappaquiddick summer resident, is a freshman at Harvard.