The Press and the Lazy Citizen
On February 1st I started my 50th year in the newspaper business, an accidental career that has brought with it a front-row seat from which to view developing issues in the region, opportunities to meet and interview people ranging from local farmers to major celebrities and the occasional chance to effect real change in the communities I covered.
I stumbled into the field with virtually no forethought. Relatively newly married, I was a recent English lit major enjoying the only period of unemployment of my life. One day I joined my husband and father (who worked together) for lunch. Dad—who was also warden of the Fire District—was then building a new sewer plant for the town and Amherst Eaton, the man hired to operate the plant, stopped by the house to talk about the job.
Am was a freelance reporter for the Lakeville Journal and was giving up the post for his new job. He asked me if I would like to replace him and suggested that I go by the office the following Monday to interview.
So I dressed for an interview and presented myself at the appointed hour only to find I already had the job. They took my picture, typed up an announcement and handed me a stack of copy paper—yes, we still typed stories on paper that was then marked up in red ink by editors and sent to typesetters. There were no computers and galleys were still set in cold type.
I had not a clue how to do the job, so I called Am for guidance. Go to the municipal meetings and write up what they do, he said. That was my total introduction to the job and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted it. I was pretty sure I would be bored sitting through endless meetings but, to my surprise, I was quickly hooked. I was back in a world of ideas for the first time since I got out of college.
A week later, the Journal’s publisher called me to say they were opening a Canaan office and asked if I would like to work full-time. A year after that I was regional editor and ten years later became managing editor, the first of several such posts.
One of the first things that impressed me was the power that had been placed in my hands. I was 22-years-old, a not very sophisticated girl from a sheltered background and yet I had been empowered to convey to my elders what was happening in their town. Their vision of what was happening—and by extension, their opinions about what should done—was formed through what I wrote. A heady experience.
I was fortunate in my mentors in those early years. Bob Estabrook, a consummate editor from the Washington Post, became publisher of the Lakeville Journal during my first year on the job, and David Parker, an elegant writer, was my managing editor. Under their tutelage, I learned journalistic ethics—Bob was such a purist reporters could not even accept a cup of coffee from an interviewee lest it create a sense of obligation.
And language was strictly monitored for slanted writing. One time when I referred to “the ladies of the church,” he struck the phrase and substituted “women.” “How do you know they are ladies?” he asked.
Gradually, as they critiqued my work, I refined my writing. Each Thursday, David would buy coffee and doughnuts from the deli across the street, sit back and review our efforts. Bob furthered the analysis by gathering his entire writing staff to go through awkward phrasing, grammatical errors and places where stories should have been sharper. I would listen, sometimes laugh at the silliness of the errors, then practice the things they pointed out until the correct way became second nature. Even today, years after his death, Bob’s voice echoes in my ear.
The newspaper business has never been easy. Particularly with small newspapers, where access to wire service stories is limited or non-existent, the production is labor intensive. Writers must go into the field, sit through four or five meetings a week, write up the stories, take pictures, help with production and—for the first 15 years of my career—deliver the final product to news outlets. It was one of the things I liked so much—a full cycle of creation; a tangible product I could look at with pride or dissatisfaction. Even if I goofed one week, and was anxious and embarrassed, the new week brought new opportunity. And a new probability that I would be humbled.
For one of the things I learned early on, and continue to marvel at, is that people will not be informed if they do not want to be. When I was young, I spent two years covering the development of zoning regulations for one of my towns. The week before the public hearing to discuss the proposed package (it was not required that draft regulations be written, but town fathers’ thought it would reassure people to know what zoning might actually mean before they voted), I wrote two long stories about the coming event. The lead story announced the meeting; the companion piece condensed what the draft ordinances contained. Imagine my amazement when I attended the hearing to find a standing-room-only crowd of hot-headed citizens who insisted the Selectmen were trying to “sneak” zoning past the voters!
Recently, similar complaints are being heard in one of my towns. It is facing a major issue that has been discussed for more than five years and I have covered the story ad nauseum. It has been discussed in public sessions before numerous boards and commissions, at public workshops and on social media—and yet some citizens bleat that they do not know the issues.
And, at the Community Conversation held at Region 7 last week to discuss high school reform, one mother complained that not enough people knew about the session—despite notifications on the school and town websites and a notice in the paper I write for. When this was pointed out to her, she responded, “Not everyone reads the newspaper.”
Just this morning, I met a 30-year-old woman who, in all innocence, asked who is running for president for the Democrats. Now, I am not covering that story but anyone who just happens to catch some of the evening news should have heard at least one of the names. She had heard of the impeachment, but had no idea of the Senate’s role or the danger to democracy when a party puts politics above patriotism.
I hear it over and over. People complain regularly that they do not know what is happening but refuse to take responsibility for their own citizenship, preferring to hear about issues from prejudiced parties who deliver half information or blatant misinformation.
It is discouraging. In an age of instant communication, when we are subjected to a plethora of dross (really who cares whether Brad Pitt talked to Jen Aniston), people seem to be willfully ignorant about important issues.
I am a newspaper person and have a prejudice for delivering information through the written word, well-vetted by editors but there are endless ways today to stay informed. It is your responsibility, not mine, to ensure that you know what you need to know, to be a participating citizen who has read about the issues and who has at least tried to learn the truth. Otherwise, the sheep-like bleating of those who feel leaders are concealing the truth may well foretell reality.