Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, February 26, 2004 6:35 am

“It was 20 years ago today/Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play …”

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 6:35 am

In my case, “Sgt. Pepper” was a middle-aged guy with square, black-rimmed glasses, a crewcut and a quasi-gravelly voice. He was the editor of the Statesville (N.C.) Record & Landmark, and he became the first editor of my newspaper career.

I should say right up front, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, that this guy, although a very nice guy, was not a particularly good newspaper editor. But on Feb. 26, 1984, I had never set foot in a journalism school. All I knew about being a newspaper reporter was where to report for my first day of work and that I’d be making $180 a week, so damn near everything that came out of the guy’s mouth carried with it the force of revelation — from the fact that there was such a thing as an Associated Press style book to the fact that if you checked and kept track of the numbers on the SPD incident reports we looked at every morning, you could tell whether the cops were holding something back. (In fact, this wasn’t always true. But it made sense to me at the time.)

I could fill in the 20-year gap. But because I still hold out faint hopes of writing (and, more importantly, selling) a memoir some day, and because you don’t have that kind of time, herewith some of The Things I Have Learned While Working for a Newspaper. This list is neither comprehensive nor particularly orderly.

  • I really can subsist for extended stretches on cheap beer and generic macaroni and cheese.
  • But it’s not as romantic as people would have you think.
  • If they know you, small-town cops can, in a weird way, be much more professional than their big-city counterparts.
  • But only if they know you.
  • Feces wash out.
  • Blood does too. Sometimes.
  • A story can be factually accurate and still wildly off the mark.
  • Competence isn’t quite a myth, but it’s a helluva lot less common than most people like to pretend.
  • Early in my career, I called journalism to “rock ‘n’ roll by other means.” I no longer do. Can’t really say why.
  • When there’s a nuclear reactor exploding on the other side of the world, sitting in a hospital ER at 1 a.m. to get stitches in your hand because you caught a bottle of orange juice just as it hit the floor and broke can seem like a pointless exercise.
  • I REALLY hate power outages.
  • Awards are nice and I’m grateful for the ones I’ve got, but they don’t really do it for me.
  • Our so-called free-enterprise system is, in many ways, a rigged game. (Don’t believe me? Fine. But you can believe him.)
  • If you’re going to commit suicide by slashing your wrists, don’t bend them back all the way. If you do, the artery you’re trying to sever gets in behind your arm bone (the ulna, I think) a little bit and you might just nick it, or even miss it entirely.
  • Same deal with your neck. The carotid gets in sort of behind a tendon or something.
  • Some journalists who are generally well thought of by the public actually have significant performance problems.
  • Very few journalists can accurate assess their own performance problems.
  • Never ascribe to conspiracy what can be adequately explained by incompetence.
  • A blood-Wellbutrin level in excess of 4 mg per liter can be fatal.
  • You don’t have to have an ancestor who had to flee England for reporting on corruption in the court of George III to enjoy this line of work.
  • But it helps.
  • It’s hard to make a bad movie about submarines.
  • It’s hard to make a good movie about newspapers.
  • Most of the time you really don’t need anonymous sources in your stories.
  • Most politicians, at least at the local/state level, really do lie pretty shamelessly at times.
  • And they expect you to act like it’s part of the game.
  • True objectivity is rarer than true love. The most you can/should hope for is to be fair and accurate.
  • If you’re any good at your job, you work for the reader. No one else. Despite what your editor might think.
  • Computers are great. When they work.
  • Sharpies work better than anything else for taking notes when it’s raining.
  • Even Sharpies don’t work that well when it’s raining.
  • Explosions tend to be lower-pitched in real life than in the movies.
  • If you become a journalist, you will have your intelligence, patriotism and sexuality questioned by people who could learn from linoleum, would sell nukes to Osama if there were a buck in it and would engage in sexual congress with a snake if they could get someone to hold its head.
  • “Sexual” and “congress” are two words that definitely do not belong in the same sentence.
  • One — perhaps the only — upside to doing this job in an age of media saturation is that people are willing to share their stories in the belief that doing so will help others.
  • Even after 20 years, I remain impressed by the previous point.
  • Even the biggest, most respected news outlets do boneheaded things with remarkable frequency.
  • Even the smallest community deserves journalism good enough for bigger communities.
  • The smallest, most backward daytime-only AM radio station probably knows at least as much about marketing itself as the biggest newspapers.
  • The best government is limited and transparent.
  • A lot of people who ought to know better do not believe either of those things.
  • One of the two biggest battles of the 21st century will be defining the role of the corporation in our society.
  • The other will be liberal democratic values vs. medievalist religion.
  • There’s no profit margin above which good journalism becomes impossible, or below which good journalism becomes inevitable.
  • Our industry’s business model is changing, rapidly and permanently, and too many of our executives continue to behave as if we’re still the only game in town.
  • If there’s going to be a revolution, it won’t be televised, but it’ll definitely be blogged.
  • Strong faith and good journalism are not mutually exclusive.
  • Many people will try to get you to believe they are. Ignore them.
  • The newspaper bidness is a crummy one, dysfunctional even by the standards of American corporate life, and has gotten worse in these past 20 years.
  • Yet it sometimes still attracts far better people than it deserves.
  • I’m not better than the bidness deserves, although I’m pretty good some days.
  • The only reason I stay in this bidness is that I couldn’t bear to leave.
  • The day may come when I have no choice.

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    2. […] the occasion of my 20th anniversary in newspapers, I said that one of the two big battles of the 21st century will be medievalism vs. modernism. Five and a […]

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