What happened to Barack Obama in that presidential debate last week? One of the more interesting explanations I heard was that the president and his advisors had become so enamored of using social media to reach their audience that they simply lost the edge that comes with one-on-one, personal interaction.
I don’t know if that can fully explain the president’s lackluster performance, but I do know that the theory also applies to journalists: All of us these days spend far too much time rooting around on the Internet and cultivating our E-mail in-boxes. Writers produce entire stories without ever seeing or hearing voice of the person they are writing about. Editors, in turn, convert those stories into print without ever seeing the writer or hearing their voice.
So the other day I left the office a little early and headed out to press some flesh at a realtime event — the opening reception for Joseph Felcone’s exhibit of historic prints at Morven, the museum that was once the governor’s mansion.
Walk into an art reception and you figure out something right away that you don’t get from a museum website: Art equals money. At Morven I was reminded of an online post I had read recently at the Hall Institute, a Trenton-based public policy think tank. The piece by editor and non-profit management consultant Lawrence Ervin McCollough, titled “Dancing on Ice Floes: Survival Strategies for Artists in the Atlas Shrugged Era of Public Arts Funding,” pointed out that while artists struggle for public support many private interests see the true value of the arts.
“What a curious contradiction,” wrote McCollough, “growing numbers of America’s government and school officials declaring arts are a waste of time (and public money) vs. legions of savvy corporate advertisers and millions of eager consumers/creators who utilize and reference the arts continuously.”
I didn’t see anyone raising corporate sponsor flags at the Morven show, but I did see a lot of well-heeled Princetonians. As always, chatting up people in person is a gold mine for a reporter. Pre-Internet (should we just call it PI?), I once met a nationally published writer who had a rule. After conducting a formal interview with the subject of his story, he would invite him or her to their favorite bar and treat them to a round of drinks. That, of course, would be when the “good stuff” all came out.
At Morven I ran into Bob Wilson of Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes. He reminded me that a stunning photo of his vineyard was used to illustrate an article we had printed in August about Labor Day festivities at area vineyards. U.S. 1’s article mentioned that wine from grapes grown on Wilson’s farm — Pheasant Hill, a few miles away in Hopewell — won second place in the “Judgment of Princeton” competition held in June of this year. Better than that, Pheasant Hill’s Chardonnay was judged best in class at the 2010 International Wine and Spirits Competition in London, surpassing wines from around the world.
As we chatted, I made a mental note to revisit this story.
A few minutes later I ran into Ron Smeltzer, a retired electrical engineer from the Sarnoff Center. Now he is also an antiquarian, whose special interest is collecting historic scientific papers. He and two other curators will be mounting an exhibit next year at the Grolier Club in New York. The theme: “Extraordinary Women: Science and Medicine since 1650.”
I immediately mentioned one instance I could think of — the forgotten woman who toiled alongside Watson and Crick as they (the men) got the credit for discovering DNA. Smeltzer was aware of the controversy but said that the real story was more involved than the popular conception. The papers of Rosalind Franklin, in fact, will be in Smeltzer’s exhibit at the Grolier. More on that later, I thought to myself.
Over at the obligatory hors d’oeuvres table, I ran into a woman who told me she was struck by some of the prints of early Bordentown, not far from where she had maintained the office for her company. The company, it turned out, had been her father’s and after his death she had the duty of presiding over its dissolution. When the woman discovered I was a reporter, she remarked that she had been married to one, years ago.
Reporters being reporters, whether we are glad-handing in public or mousing around a computer terminal at the office, are always curious. Back at the office, I googled the reporter, whose name was familiar to me, and discovered the following anecdote written by the reporter about a friend of his, the legendary Steve Jobs:
“My former wife had been a book editor in New York and had worked on a project with Bo Derek before we moved to California. One night when she and I were having dinner with Steve, Bo’s name came up — as did the factoid that Bo was a heavy duty computer jockey, albeit of the IBM persuasion. Steve took this as a personal challenge; he was going to convert Bo to a Mac user — and who knew what else. Clearly the computer could be a foot in the door. He persuaded my wife to make him an appointment with Bo.
“And so one day shortly thereafter, Steve piled into his Mercedes, along with a Mac, and drove down to Bo’s Santa Barbara ranch, which she shared with her husband, John Derek. Bo was cordial but unimpressed; she accepted the computer but remained a PC user. And apparently she did not find Steve as dashing as Steve expected she would.
“Several weeks later, Steve was complaining to my wife about the lackluster impression he had made. ‘Look,’ she told him, ‘she’s married. And besides, I don’t know any woman who would want her name to be Bo Jobs.’”
So, whether you are a presidential candidate or a reporter looking for a story, there is the proof: It pays to get out of the office once in a while.
If you want to follow my footsteps through the Felcone collection at Morven, one chance comes Tuesday, October 16, at 10 a.m. Felcone will lead a collector’s tour of the exhibit, “Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of New Jersey, 1761-1898,” and share insight into the process of collecting as well as highlight various pieces of his collection. Call 609-924-8144, ext. 10, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations. $12, or $10 for Friends of Morven.