Things that just occurred to me, in no particular order

Posts tagged ‘Journalism’

Pssst: Everyone loves a secret!

One of my journalism professors, the venerable Sam Archibald, taught that there was never a reason for government to slip behind closed doors.

Nothing in government, he said, deserved secrecy. Even discussions about whether or not to expel a student, a delicate matter usually made sacrosanct by even the most liberal of freedom of information rules, could be done in full view and light of public scrutiny.

Governments don’t agree. It’s not that they are doing anything particularly sneaky, mind you. It’s just that government is much more efficient without all that oversight and a misunderstanding public poking their fingers in everything.

If they could, he said, governments would never open their doors to the public — not for the simplest, most mundane, basic discussion. It’s not easy getting them to open up, he said, and he quoted the Bible: Acts 9: 5-6: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

I’m thinking about those lessons a lot, especially with this latest dust-up with the Lewiston City Council. I think this situation would have driven him into fits, spins and incredulous, profanity filled rants.

Basically, Maine’s rules for open meetings favor government. There’s a list of reasons they can shut the doors; labor negotiations, land trades and the especially broad “consultations with their attorney”.

This current council wasn’t able to agree on anything until Tuesday night. They started out on a bad foot, way back in 2007, meeting secretly in compliance with the law but flouting common sense and public duty. They’ve progressed from name calling to secret e-mail meetings to other kinds of secret huddles. They’ve been unable to agree with each other on much of anything.

They had one last split, contentious vote Tuesday night before they went into executive session — they couldn’t even agree about that. But they came out, each spouting the same two-word party line — no comment — and they’ve held that silence ever since. Attorney- client privilege, they say. The law is on their side.

But the law doesn’t mention hurt feelings, and I think that’s what the current controversy  comes down to.

In the end, they’re just hurting themselves.  Sam Archibald’s basic point was that secrets are really only juicy and fun as long as they’re secret. As soon as the facts come out, as soon as everyone says “Ahh. that’s what all that nonsense was about,” people move on.

They’re supposed to release a written statement this afternoon, but I don’t think the issue is finished. As long as they try to hold on to their secrets like a dog in the manger, people will continue talking about it. It’s just human  nature.

They pretty much guarantee that I’ll be writing about this for some time to come.

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Indulge me, for a moment

I get tired of writing about writing. It’s a spiral staircase of navel-gazing and it’s frequently boring. But it’s so much a part of what I do every day,  I can’t help thinking about it.

So let me get this out of the way. I’ll be quick. Honest.

First, I am always surprised about the depth and breadth of Twitter-hate out there. By god, I love Twitter. It’s a bunch of different things to me: Instant headlines, odd thoughts, conversation starters, useful information and meaningless drivel about people I know and people I don’t. It comes in a steady flow of information, but doesn’t take long to think about and usually always drives me to more information if I want it.

So shut up.

Second, people on both sides arguing about the death of newspapers are kind of missing the point.

Simply, newspapers have always been good sources of income. That’s changed, and papers that have ridiculous amounts of debt are going to fail — just like any other debt-saddled business would. If anyone’s going to escape this mess, it’s going to be ones with solid business plans.

Who are they? I don’t know, but I think we’ll find out shortly.

No matter, the business of newsgathering will go on — and I do mean “business.” People will be willing to pay other people to sit through public meetings,  sort through various documents and speak with all varieties of unsavory characters to find out what’s going on.

So, there is going to plenty of work for professional newsgatherers, online and otherwise. I’m looking forward to a future with professional reporters and citizen journalists. That’s the best of both worlds.

The stuff that gets left out

Notebook vomit.

That’s what one of my long-ago journalism professor called the tendency of some news writers to open their notebooks and empty them into their stories.

Two things keep you from doing that at a daily paper; deadline and size.

If you have a really rousing story, you get some where between 16 and 20 column inches tops. That goes pretty quickly, and you end up trimming quite a bit of what happened.

Deadline is the other killer, especially when you need to start trimming. Frankly, I think it’s always worked to my favor.

Way back when, I used to cover meetings along side a decent reporter from a long-standing weekly paper. I’d rush back after the meeting and push out two or three ten-inch stores for the next morning’s paper. I’d pick up his paper a few days later and read his story. Literally everything was there, every gibber, sob and raised voice, covered in a well written, 96-inch monster. I could never finish them.

Stories posted to the Internet have different requirements. You’ve got unlimited space, at first blush. Of course, nine out of ten readers will never finish reading a 20-inch story, never mind a 96-incher.You still have to edit reality to fit the screen.

And deadlines are even more harsh. Draft one needs to get up seconds, minutes after whatever event has wrapped.

No matter what, so many great things get skipped. Monday night, for example, I had City Councilors joking — I think — that the real way to cut down on unnecessary 911 calls was to change the number and make the new one unlisted. That would’ve been great thing to add, but it didn’t fit in anywhere.
Tuesday night I left out reams of interesting stuff on luring tourism to Lewiston, ways to improve the downtown and plenty of other stuff. I just didn’t have room for all of it. I’m pretty sure I hit the high points and covered most things people care about. But I hold on to the rest, and I’ll use it when I get the chance.

Inspiration

I think it was Mrs. Pleake, my 5th grade teacher, that convinced me I could be a writer of some sort. That’s where it started.

I don’t know what the final catalyst was, but it was right about that time that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to do it.

Maybe it was watching Lou Grant, maybe it was Woodward and Bernstein,  maybe it was something else. But at that point, I decided I wanted to be a reporter, a newspaper reporter.

I had it all mapped out. I wanted to go to school in Boulder, at the University of Colorado, graduate, drive a Jeep CJ and work at  a newspaper. I even picked out the  paper.

I went to school in Boulder, but I never got that CJ. But I guess there’s still time.

But now  I’ll never work at that paper, the Rocky Mountain News.  Owners Scripps Howard announced, about 2 p.m. eastern time, that the Feb. 27 edition would be its last. The entire operation, 200 people, were finished. No number of Pulitzer prizes, awesome designs, great columnists, or amazing photographs could save their jobs.

The staff has promised to make their final edition a doozy, and I’ve already asked my Mom to grab me a copy or two.

The news sent shudders through newsrooms everywhere, and it was no different at mine. We were all shocked, w0ndering what 200 more highly skilled, trained journalists on the market would mean.

But it was the death of dream for me.

One more thing:

The Sun Journal has started running live blogs three times each week. Mondays will be reserved for opinion, columnists and the papers editorial board. Wednesday’s will be sports. And Fridays are set aside for news. We’ll focus on local issues, bring in folks in the news and let readers ask questions of our talented staff of writers.

We started running them this week and the two we’ve done so far have been well received.

The Newsroom kicks of Feb. 27 at noon eastern time with Crime Reporter Mark Laflamme, special projects  writer Lindsay Tice and myself.

If anyone’s interested, stop by the Sun Journal’s Live Blog link and say hi.

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