By Mark Jamison • Guest Columnist
I’ve spent most of my life minding my own business. I was raised by people who were reticent; reticent in their demeanor and in their culture. My grandfather didn’t have much education, only through the third grade, so even though he was proud of the fact that he taught himself, he was not supremely confident in putting those skills on public display.
I, too, didn’t have much education. That was not because of lack of opportunity or economic hardship — as in the case of my grandfather — but more from an inability to sit still and follow the program. I loved to read and learn because Pappaw loved to read and learn, but perhaps I took the wrong lesson from the circumstances he brought to the table.
So, besides the reticence that can sometimes be embodied in the culture of mountain folks, I found my lack of formal education a source of reticence in speaking up on things.
About 15 years ago I read an article in our local paper, The Sylva Herald, which quoted a newly-elected county commissioner as saying that he wanted to hit the ground running looking for new sources of revenue. The comment struck me in a funny way and over the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head.
I’ve always had a love affair with newspapers. In small towns they tell the comings and goings of local folks. They help connect folks from town or the next cove over. In many places they are the only check on local government, providing the transparency that is critical for democracy to function.
I’ve loved too the writing in newspapers. It is special and different. A well-written lead is a thing of beauty, answering who, what, where, when and why with a precise economy. A good story builds on a good lead to bring facts and information together in a well-wrapped package. And good newspaper writing is neither dry nor boring — columnists like Mencken, Royko, Breslen, Rice, Lippman and Red Smith could bring news and opinion to an art form.
So despite my natural reticence, I decided that I would write a letter to the editor. It was one of the first things I ever wrote, and it went over pretty well. Folks would stop in the post office and say they’d seen it, and whether they agreed with the points I made, they said it made them think and that it was clear. I didn’t change anything, but I got folks to think and that, I thought, was useful.
A few months after my first letter to the editor a controversial local issue arose that affected my community in Speedwell. Folks asked me if I would write something in the paper about it, so I did. What I wrote seemed to articulate a certain sentiment in the community; one thing led to another and folks put me in charge of a committee to fight the issue. That led to more letters to the editor and eventually to more involvement in local issues and local government.
Over the ensuing years, I’ve written about 75 letters to the editor. I’ve tried to be selective and only write when I had something to say, and I’ve tried to recognize that one doesn’t have to have an opinion on everything. The letters have brought me some notoriety in the community — folks come up all the time and say they like or don’t like what I’ve said about this or that. The letters got me involved with a couple of grassroots issues in the county that, in one case, saved a quiet farm community from an industrial quarry.
I don’t consider myself a writer, at least not with a capital “W,” but some of what started as letters to the editor were apparently good enough to become commentaries in the The Smoky Mountain News, Mountain Xpress and some other local papers. Good enough, too, to win a couple of awards, including an N.C. Press Association award, although I have mixed emotions about that — I don’t want to be like the boy who got the medal for being the most humble then had it taken away because he wore it. I’m told I have a style, but it’s not something I’ve tried to craft or culture, I just write down what falls out of my head.
The news today is full of predictions that newspapers are dying. I suppose the advent of new technology and new media makes that inevitable. I have a friend who is curious in a brilliant sort of way. He has a way of researching and learning about obscure and arcane things and a talent for posting some of those things in a blog. When I see the things Perry writes and posts on his blog, I am impressed with the potential for new media. But I also know that what he does can never replace what a newspaper does.
I read two newspapers online every day. I think it’s amazing that I can have access to the New York Times and the Washington Post in that format. The truth though is that, if I could afford them, I would much rather have them spread out on the table in front of me. It seems to me that I can read them better that way. I can scan better, pick and choose what I want to read in detail and actually navigate the media better. I find, too, that reading the paper online actually takes longer — even with a relatively fast internet connection, there is a break in the continuity of my attention as a page loads.
The things I see on the Internet that are supposed to replace the newspaper don’t impress me. What passes for journalism is often just a rehash and combination of other people’s efforts — there seems to be very little actual source reporting. I also see what amounts to a great deal of anonymous opinionating on the Internet. I’m told the Internet is supposed to democratize communication and create broader communities of interest. I don’t really see that. In forums and comments and blogs I see what amounts to anonymous rock throwing and pontificating. It’s easy to be intemperate and wrong from the comfort of one’s own desk at perhaps 3 a.m. in one’s pajamas. There don’t seem to be any consequences for hitting the send button, and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of real communication.
Good journalism, I think, isabout telling stories well, but it is also about ethics and responsibility, about perfecting craft and establishing bona fides. Good journalism is often about immediacy, getting the story first, but it is also about good clear writing with depth. Twitter reduces things to their most banal and inane basis. Twitter is to writing and journalism what a cell phone picture is to Ansel Adams. Immediacy is important, but when it trumps everything, it is nothing but self-indulgent laziness raised to the level of addiction.
Newspapers may be dying and it may be inevitable that one form of media delivery is ultimately replaced with another, but the thing I find dangerous is that what is also dying is good newspaper journalism. We are learning the wrong lessons from our love affair with the Web. We are fueling our destructive need for instant gratification and our fickleness for attention-grabbing new bells and whistles with our move to new technology. In the process of allowing our eyes to be drawn to spangly candy, we are missing the point because the real value of the Web is its ability to add depth. We have the ultimate fact checker with the quintessential ability to store, sort and assimilate untold depths of information, and we are more interested in creating a democratized Tower of Babble where cacophony trumps all.
Today I found and read a section from John Maynard Keynes’ seminal work The Economic Consequences of the Peace on Google Books. On another archive, I found the work of Olivia Darden, a woman who wrote with a fascinating voice about early 20th century mountain culture. This is what the Internet can do, and we’re missing it.
I hope good newspaper journalism doesn’t die. I think there are benefits to print media that give it lasting value. The time, effort and expense it takes to put something in print is a sorting process that has value. The local paper that comes out every week is a marker of time that is important. It gives a rhythm and pace to our week, it is a parameter of community. I hope there continues to be a place where a reticent, not especially well-educated, fellow can screw up his courage and put something in print that says he thinks a local politician said something that didn’t make sense. The effort in putting those thoughts in order, committing them to paper and seeing them in print where his neighbors and friends can read them and hold the fellow accountable for what he said is fundamentally different than hitting the send button and going to bed.