When I got into the journalism business I expected to report on and write about some celebrities from time to time. I never expected to be treated like one.
Early in my career it happened once — just once. As a reporter for Time magazine, I had been invited by some corporation to cover a conference on the future it was arranging with various thought leaders. It would be held at Fred Waring’s Shawnee Inn in the Poconos and attendees would be driven from Manhattan to Pennsylvania and back. Coming back the limo was crammed with a half dozen of us journalists. My stop at the Time-Life Building was last. At the moment we arrived, a former colleague of mine from the Oneonta bureau of the Binghamton Evening Press, on vacation in the big city with his wife and daughter, happened to be walking past the Time-Life Building. He and the family wondered if there were any way to look me up and say hello.
At that very moment they noticed a long black limousine pull up. The driver opened the door, and I stepped out. I earned instant celebrity status.
My 15 minutes of fame was fleeting. But lately, it seems, I’m back in the spotlight. I go to a meeting contemplating the future of parking in downtown Princeton and someone compliments me on a recent column. I end up at a meeting debating the arrangement by which the Princeton school district accepts high school kids from Cranbury. Someone at that meeting compliments me on the parking story. In the past few weeks a half dozen people mention my 7,000-word architectural review of the new Lewis Arts Center. OK, I figure, they saw it, but did they really read it? I mention the college kid quoted at the end of the piece. The kid had it nailed, they respond.
When you get an attaboy for a story on parking, or an architectural review, you have to figure something is going on. I sense that people are still hungry for in-depth stories that take them to a place or a subject area that they have heard about but never really studied before. If they get a chance to discuss the subject with the author they jump at it. I also sense that people are realizing that in-depth journalism is an increasingly rare commodity. There are simply fewer news organizations, fewer reporters, and more news and issues than ever to cover.
Some people are thinking about ways to change that — more on that later. But first a round-up of recent reader comments.
A reader from Hillsborough, Suzanne Vardon, put into words what I have been sensing about the public’s perception of the media: “Just wanted to send a line in recognition of your reporting,” she wrote, “in view of the salmon swimming upstream struggles of newspapers and journalism — show advertisers we’re still out there, reading and responding.”
Vardon had comments on three recent articles, with references to the last lines, as if she knew that was one of my tests to see if someone has really read the piece.
May 16 column: Paul Scharf. “As someone whose parents and spouse have died, and who never had siblings or children, your gift of friendship with Paul was very meaningful. I am fortunate to have good friends; we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I must do the living will/POLST. At some point, I/you/we all will be next.”
May 30: Lewis Center. “In 1999 I took a basic course in architecture at Mercer County Community College. It changed how I would see and think about buildings and space. Your article was so interesting. (Those steps really are strange — how many paces before the next one, or are we to leap?) And that devastating review by Kyle Berlin. What was so important was the information that he went into nonprofit theater: an artist (reviewing an arts center) and a nonprofit artist at that (money and commercial profit not the primary concern, thus using a purer artistic lens).
June 6: “So Long, Bobby. Wow, you really were there! Your piece brought back 1968. I realize now what a bubble I was in as those months rolled out with one catastrophe after another. I graduated from NYU (uptown campus) in June, started my first fulltime job, and in July married a guy I really loved. That year was like a tsunami from which I was, for better or worse, protected. I remember hearing the news about RFK. I was in the kitchen in the morning, and I thought, ‘Why are they talking about JFK and his assassination? What? Robert? Oh no….’”
A woman who lives within walking distance of me delivered a hand-written note to my mailbox — talk about old-fashioned community journalism. In addition to some words of encouragement she wrote the following:
“I was particularly interested in your comments about the architecture of the Lewis Arts Complex. I’ve walked around it and in it several times and was totally underwhelmed by what I saw. I expect that functionally it will more than serve the purposes for which it was constructed, but from an artistic point of view, it leaves much to be desired.
“The mantra of a lot of architects these days is ‘less is more.’ Thank god for Robert Venturi (Princeton, Class of 1947, and Princeton MFA in 1950) who said ‘less is boring.’ I say amen to that.”
My June 13 column called out Pete Hegseth, the Fox News analyst and twice-divorced crusader for family values. Princeton resident Pat Hyatt read that column, and found one line in it “nagging” her. “You state that journalists are predominately (but not exclusively) liberal because they represent the communities that they serve. Perhaps.
“But I’ve also been convinced over time that many if not most fellow journalists and academics turn liberal because they’ve had to bring their inquiring intelligence to both sides of an issue, then researched and weighed all sides, and reached the conclusion that wisdom supporting humanity also supports the liberal world view. Conservatives bemoan the liberal press and liberal colleges for their unwanted impact on society: That’s like blaming education, curiosity, and fact-finding for interfering with ignorance. There. Off my chest.”
To which I responded: “Good point. I should have said journalists tend to be liberal partly because they represent their communities. In some other column, I made the point that social policy issues attract journalists because these policies are often nuanced and ripe for discussion, analysis, etc. But a lot of conservatives don’t want those policies to even exist. So why bother being a journalist?”
Mel Bernarde, a retired microbiologist and epidemiologist who taught public health at Rutgers, sent in a comment on the June 6 column on RFK. “Your fast-paced, first-hand account of the spring of 1968 and back to 1965, giving us a primary source account of political upheaval, had a special resonance for me, having lived through it and its dire consequences.
“Hints of future positive activity are suggestive. There is also indication that the 18-25 age group, those millions of college students who have had miserable voting records, in fact, the lowest of all age groups, will/should be registering to vote and follow through to vote in the November mid-terms. I’m with the young people who are bent on making the necessary changes their parents and grandparents could not: utopia is for others.”
Being the journalist who tries to give voice to all these disparate views is rarely a glamorous job, especially at the community level. For the July issue of our sister paper, the Princeton Echo, I found myself caught deep in the weeds of a proposed $129 million bond referendum for the public schools. The analysis of the bond’s impact on property taxes did not make sense to me (and still doesn’t). The handful of other journalists in town who cover the school board did not seem to have had any better coverage. They are all stretched thin.
At the state level some government people are noticing the dearth of reporters covering their events, asking for explanations, and presenting the views of ordinary citizens (who also might be voters). This week the New Jersey legislature approved $5 million for the Civic Information Consortium, a public fund that would encourage community journalism, media literacy, and civic engagement. It’s now awaiting the governor’s signature. Exactly how this fund will be distributed is a subject for another day (and hopefully for some digging by one of those few remaining working journalists).
If you have any ideas how it might work let me know. And if you think you see me getting out of the driver’s seat of a red Toyota RAV4, it probably is me. The limousine is in the shop. I gave the driver some time off.