Sunday, January 1, 2012

workin overtime

At the age of 26 and with little professional training, I managed to get into a field that, if I live to be 80, I imagine I'll look back on much as a silent film star might look back on old Hollywood, or a logger upon the days when trees were the size of Volkswagens. It will be a relic of a different time, before daily print journalism changed irrevocably. Things change, of course, but the slow death of community journalism represents something greater than a single loss. Newspapers are as much a part of this country's heritage as cowboys, their history as romanticized as railroads'. We don't know what the industry or the medium will look like in 80 years, but there's no doubt that right now, it is on the verge of something monumental. And I get to witness it from the increasingly rare perspective of a daily community journalist.

The recent documentary Page One about the media desk of the New York Times is a good film for anyone interested in the future of journalism, but it focuses on the perspective of the big guys. While we as a society tend to place great value on world and national news – and the people who produce it – most of it doesn't affect us one bit. The world is becoming more globalized and it's important to know what's going on, we tell ourselves while reading the Wall Street Journal at the airport, sipping espresso and feeling sophisticated. Meanwhile, community journalism founders at our doorstep.

My foray into newspapers began with the comics of the Springfield Republican, spread out on my parents' mauve living room rug on Sunday mornings in a square of dusty sunlight. As I grew up, I began reading the paper voraciously, largely because there was always a copy sitting at the kitchen table and I found it impossible to eat a bowl of cereal without reading something. Newspapers were infinitely more interesting than the backs of cereal boxes. Later, I spent a year and a half at a company that digitized the pages of historic and current newspapers. When I was done, I could tell you the names of nearly every small town newspaper that had ever thrived in the U.S.. The names were lyrical, like the names of boats. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The Cleveland Plain-dealer. Oracle of the Day.

These newspapers told stories in a way no history book ever has. Our marketing line was that newspapers were the “first draft of history,” and after spending hours at my desk poring through digitized copies of old newspapers, I found it to be true. I could search nearly every newspaper printed between 1692 and 1922 for a single word or phrase. I tracked advertisements as they evolved from rewards for runaway slaves to automobiles to furs and Brillo cream. I found my ancestors in the obituaries and birth and marriage announcements. I saw the arc and fall of wars and of fashions, the bursts of breaking news – fires and strikes and scandals – the evolution of the form itself.

I worked there in 2007, when the newspaper industry was on the verge of a change still upending the world around us with no clear end in sight. No one knows what's going to happen. The company I worked for was weathering the storm pretty well, but they too worried about what the future would hold. Like the newspapers they dealt in, the company was built on the premise that people paid for reputable information. The internet is changing that.

Now I work for that dying breed, a daily print newspaper serving a largely rural area. My paper straddles the Vermont/New Hampshire border, and our proximity to Dartmouth College keeps us alive: it brings wealthy, educated people to a rural region, people who understand what's happening to community journalism and actively want to support it. We in the newsroom are derisive of the wealthy bubble they've created. But we're lucky.

I got in just in time. Twenty years from now, I don't know what the job I'm doing will look like or how many paid positions there will be. Right now, though, with the exception of the internet making research a thousand times easier, my job looks much like it has for decades. I approach strangers in the rain with a pen and narrow notebook poised, ready to scribble down the words that fly from their throat, hoping for the perfect quote, one that is regionally inflected, pointed, concise and witty all at once.

We cannot smoke in the office anymore, but we have John, who greets us every morning with a hearty “hey, gang” and looks like he belongs behind a smoky desk, and Jim, who is amicable but may win an award for most cynical man on the planet after David Carr dies. There is another John, who wears a plaid bowtie and pecks at the computer like its a typewriter. I try to be hard-edged, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I smile when I call an elderly woman on the phone and hear her delight in talking to the Valley News – her favorite out of the three local newspapers she and her husband get: us, plus the Claremont Eagle-Times and the Rutland Herald. She says she couldn't live without it.

Avid readers follow the staff writers and know our beats. I meet people at parties and introduce myself and they know who I am, recall an article I may have written months ago and reference it. “Which of my favorite Valley News writers are you?” asked a woman I met at a potluck several weeks ago. “Krista Langlois,” I said. “Oh, I'd hoped so!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms me like we were old friends. It's heartwarming to live in a place that values journalism, but is quick also to criticize, to keep us on our toes. Daily journalism operating out of a single, central location – rather than an unseen network of solitary bloggers sending off their work with a single key – is something to behold, a constant, churning machine. Reporters on deadline, the groan of the metal press, the bundles of papers loaded into trucks in the middle of the night, bleary eyed editors at their desks. It is nothing short of a daily miracle.

I've lived without news, too, for long stretches of time. I found it unsettling, in the Marshall Islands, to be stuck on a long, narrow crescent of sand and palm trees in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean without the slightest idea of what was happening elsewhere in the world. Once a month (if I was lucky), I would get a photocopied newsletter mailed to me with the month's headlines: St. Louis Wins World Series. More Than 30 Die in Virginia Tech Shooting. Wildfires Rage in California. That was it. World War III could have been going on and I wouldn't have found out until months later. But I knew everything that was happening on my island. Who was having a baby and who had gotten into a fight and who was flying to Majuro and would bring back new clothes and bags of candy. Which fish were running. It was hard to wean myself off the daily dose of global and national news I had grown so accustomed to, because it seemed important to be aware of what was going on in the world, but I knew what was going on in my world, and in the end that mattered more.

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