It's what we do
Journalists learn and re-learn daily that to be successful their work must be closely attuned to real life as it occurs outside the newspaper's pages. It's not an inside job.
But first, a caution. Observing, recording, translating, and commenting on what your neighbors do is not the same thing as history. So, when you find yourself in the company of a newspaper type who talks pridefully about his journal being 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 deplorable - to keep track of it all. If you want a paper of record, you want something like the Congressional Record, which publishes every blessed word that passes for debate in Congress, plus additions, amendments, revisions and extensions, and reproductions of words spoken and published elsewhere. A faithful reader of the Congressional Record may be assured of a bored, blind, and stupid old age.
The paper of record is a hoax. What is wanted instead is the paper of insight, the paper of connection, of interpretive connection. That is what good newspapers try to be.
And our goals should have people in mind. It's not all about the great outdoors. John R. Stilgoe says it nicely in his wonderful, illustrated examination of the littoral, "Alongshore" (Yale University, 1994):
"Natural history has a place in this book, but only a very small one, and that fragile. So many writers follow the course set by Thoreau in Cape Cod, by Henry Beston in The Outermost House, by John and Mildred Teal in Life and Death of a Saltmarsh ... by dozens of other observers that what is built, what is people-made strikes me as in danger of devaluation, of slipping away from sustained notice ... Perhaps what ecologists and ornithologists designate 'limicole' needs another look, lest it endure merely as that half-land, half-water zone across which piping plovers skitter, and not as the theater for human activity, too."
We like to think that the theater Mr. Stilgoe is talking about is the one we like to go to.
Also, whenever newspapering is the topic, there is the relentlessly troublesome notion of objectivity. Objectivity is what politicians who've taken a beating in the press complain that journalists lack. 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 20th century. He was a linguist and a lexicographer as well as a newspaperman, and his prose was humming taut. He had his hang-ups and prejudices, and his eminence would be sorely tested were he practicing today. But, as 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."
Mencken was against the politicians, and he had his doubts about their constituents, but any thinking man or woman would appreciate Mencken. Mostly, of course, politicians did not.
What marked Mencken for literary and journalistic 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 to please his audience, not some champion's disguise he'd put on to lead a campaign, not a circulation-building sham. No, the reader discovered a passionately held understanding of what he was reporting, an understanding achieved by connecting himself to, by caring about, though not always approving, the people and events that were his subjects.
Here is a more typical relationship between a writer and his subject. It is John Updike speaking about his adopted home, Ipswich, Mass.:
"I loved it all - its authentic depth of history, its great changing marshes and winding odd-named roads ... its social and ethnic variety, its homely hodgepodge downtown, its casual acceptingness of me. I remember coming back to the town, early in our years there, from several days in New York, to which I still traveled laboriously, by train; tired from the seven-hour trip, I walked from the station with my suitcase, on a winter night, up to the high school where the annual town meeting was in progress. I gave my name, was checked off and admitted, and stood there in the doorway of the gymnasium-auditorium in my city suit, looking in at the brightly illuminated faces of my fellow citizens.
"They were agitated by some thoroughly local issue on the floor; my wife and the friends we had made were somewhere in this solemn, colorful, warm civic mass, and I felt a rush of wonder that I had come to be a part of this, this lively town meeting sequestered within the tall winter night, below the basketball nets ...
"I turned thirty, then forty ... I saw myself as a literary spy within average, public school, supermarket America. It was there I felt comfortable; it was there that I felt the real news was. I wrote short stories for the New Yorker all those years like an explorer sending bulletins from the bush, and they published most of them ..."
Although he was speaking about fiction, what Updike said next applies exactly to journalism: it "is a dirty business; discretion and good taste play small part in it. Hardly a story appears in print without offending or wounding some living model who sees himself or herself reflected all too accurately and yet not accurately enough - without that deeping, mollifying element of endless pardon we bring to our own self. Parents, wives, children - the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up. So my art like my religion has a shabby side ... Truth should not be forced. It should simply manifest itself, like a woman who has in her privacy reflected and coolly decided to bestow herself upon a certain man. She will dawn upon that man...."