Friday, September 24, 2010

Yesterday was Journalism Day three different ways

By Barry Johnson

I'm going to write about my day yesterday, something I rarely do, not explicitly anyway.  Not that you can't tell what I've been up to in a general way from reading the posts -- observing, researching, drawing the wrong conclusions, you know, the usual.

But yesterday was different. The central thread was "journalism," I suppose, and it demonstrated just how far afield you can get under that heading at the same time that it tangled up some things I've been working on and thinking about.  I'm dividing it into three parts, to coincide with the three primary entries in my Thursday calendar -- 11 a.m.: a meeting with an Important Editor: 1 p.m.: a visit to a classroom at a residential treatment center for teenagers; and 7 p.m.: a reading to celebrate the new edition of Oregon Humanities magazine.

11 a.m., a coffeeshop in downtown Portland

OK. Protocols prevent me from revealing the editor's name, but we've known each other a long time and have worked together positively and creatively at times. Mostly, we talked about my ongoing effort to start a cultural journalism project, a non-profit that would support writers and video and audio journalists who work at describing, analyzing and evaluating Portland's rich arts and cultural life. This isn't the time for a full-throated argument about why we need such a thing -- it has to do with our cultural identity, self-awareness, the importance of community, the way the arts and culture bind us together and help us make sense of things.

The Important Editor expressed support for the idea and thought maybe there were partnership possibilities -- my idea involves developing a number of media partners (print, radio, TV, the web) who would "broadcast" the work of the journalism team in their publications, over their airwaves or on their sites. The team would have its own website, sure, but I'm hoping that our journalism will be SO good that everyone will want to read/hear/see it.  And if we can get magazines, newspapers, radio and TV stations involved, that has a chance of happening.

Anyway, yes, he was encouraging.  And then our discussion turned to a "hyper-local" news initiative he was trying to get off the ground.  That's a buzz word, and it simply means the news of smaller communities, the stuff a small-town newspaper publishes, from news of upcoming community events to serious problems at the local school or water bureau. As newsrooms have shrunk nationwide, by more than half in our newspapers and TV and radio stations by most counts, this sort of reporting has disappeared.

I've been doing some work for the Reynolds School District in east Multnomah County -- its boundaries are roughly the Sandy River, the Columbia River, NE 148th Ave., and SW Stark St., encompassing Troutdale, Wood Village, Fairview and parts of the cities of Portland and Gresham, a jurisdictional nightmare, really, that makes it almost impossible to do the sort of desperate urban and social repairs the area needs. Reynolds is among the poorest and most diverse school districts in the state, and some of its poorest and most diverse schools are inside the city limits of Portland.

Anyway, the population served by Reynolds is approaching 100,000 and to a large degree the lives of those hundred thousand go unreported. Those desperate conditions, unreported. The small victories, unreported. The major civic failures, unreported. The rich cultural life they are creating despite it all, unreported. So, I was excited to hear about the Important Editor's ideas about attempting to describe these things, not just in Reynolds but other big swathes of the Portland metro area. I've had a similar idea about Reynolds, and if I hadn't gotten involved in cultural journalism project, I might very well have tried to get a small reporting team off the ground there -- the reporting ground is that loamy and that untilled.

And that's how we left it -- with the possibility of working together again on a couple of projects that both of us think are important but hard to get off the ground, given the general state of the economy and the specific state of financing for journalism.

1 p.m., a facility in deep Southeast Portland

Again, protocols keep me from telling you exactly where I was or with whom I spoke, and in this case the protocols go beyond the journalistic to the legal. I was there to talk to small classroom of teenagers about journalism, which was an amorphous enough topic to include everything from specific practices and limitations to the "career" aspect of it all, which couldn't be dicier at this point.

Given my gloomy assessment of the cognitive abilities and emotional imbalance of the species homo sapiens, I usually like to start with the limits: How much about something can we really know? And then I think we can construct what really matters about the practice of journalism from how we attempt to overcome those limits -- from the mental state of the reporters doing research (open, curious, inquisitive) to the rigor of the tests they apply to the information they get.

The students as I looked around the little classroom circle? Some were intensely focused and obviously quite bright.  Teenagers can surprise you with the intellectual sophistication they can bring to a discussion, and that is always a delight. Others sat quietly. One fell asleep.

They asked me some questions they'd prepared (I kept the list), most of them personal, really -- how I got into journalism (a large degree of chance was involved), what the weirdest story I reported was (it involved a mangy little circus in Seattle),  the favorite story I'd written myself (I decided on this one, but I might have gone several entirely different ways), how much money I made (not nearly enough, but then again more than I'm worth), and the first question: "Did your boss have control over your content or how you did things with your writing."  That, I told them, was one career-long negotiation, but thinking of it as "control" might undermine your attempt to have a constructive, fruitful, creative  relationship with your closest reader, your editor.

From that first question, I was acutely aware that the kids in this facility engulfed in issues and situations and personal histories I couldn't begin to fathom. A "constructive, fruitful, creative relationship" with an authority figure? Most of them had been betrayed by the primary authority figures in their lives and had developed protective techniques that preserved small pieces of control at all costs. The idea that you might not have to do that? That someone might try to collaborate with you in the best possible way, honoring your independence and helping you work on specific things at the same time? That was going to take more than a few sentences from me.

Toward the end we talked a little about objectivity. To me, that philosophical question (about which I have definite thoughts) is less important than the state of mind of the reporter, our ability to lay aside our own hypotheses, ideologies, previous considerations, prejudices and whatever else keeps us from approaching a subject as freshly as we can. We can never be entirely successful at this; that doesn't excuse us from trying.  Reporters, I told them, need to get out of their own way, so they can deal with the problem at hand.

The teacher seized on that one immediately. "What do you think about that," she asked the class. "Do you often get in your own way?" Several of the looked down and nodded their heads yes.  They weren't thinking about journalism at all; they were locked in dramas of abuse and neglect and then the subsequent dramas that resulted from that abuse and neglect. And I thought, we are so often talking about more important things than we think we are. And I felt,  I am so sorry for the utterly undeserved suffering my fellow humans in that circle have endured.

And the connection to the meeting with the Important Editor? Any ideas I may have about what "hyper-local" reporting means or cultural reporting or any meaningful reporting whatsoever involves that circle and those lives, one way or another.

7 p.m., Broadway Books on Northeast Broadway

A few months ago, I talked to Kathleen Holt, the editor of Oregon Humanities magazine, about writing a little essay for the magazine. I think someone else had dropped out, and suddenly a slot opened up. I'd just turned down the opportunity to work on one of the city's Fall Arts Guides -- you know, those compilations of all the great things coming up in the area's clubs, cinemas, concert halls and stages before they are overrun by Christmas-related programming.  And the more I'd thought about it, the more I'd come to think that those silly little data accumulations had a nefarious side to them.

I use "nefarious" here deliberately, as a sort of joke, because I know there are more pressing social issues than Fall Arts Guides. Still, I thought they were symbolic of something deeper -- the way even local culture has become about marketing and consuming rather than fulfilling our real hunger to explore our selves, our relationships, our culture as a whole. If I'm simply consuming the Joshua Bell concert, my interaction with the symphony ends there; if I engage with the symphony, though, take some responsibility for it, I have a chance to help them figure out what my (and our) needs are going forward, insofar as the symphony is prepared to involve me.  OK, that's the argument inside the column I wrote for Oregon Humanities, because Kathleen thought that was a fine idea, an evaluations  I hope she doesn't regret at this point.

So, to celebrate my completion of that essay, Oregon Humanities arranged a reading at Broadway Books, which happens to be my neighborhood bookstore so I was excited to participate. I was also excited because the cover of the magazine has that great Carl Morris mural in the old Eugene Post Office, the WPA-style painting of rural America at work. My relationship with Morris was warm, and right before he died, I worked on an essay about his work for a Portland Art Museum retrospective. I digress.

I also lied. I was the warm-up act for the main readers at Broadway Books. As the Morris painting signals, this issue of Oregon Humanities is about work, and we heard from Dave Weich, M. Allen Cunningham and Bette Lynch Husted about the subject, after I read and slinked off to take my seat.

Weich talked about what happened to him after a momentous day in his life --  the day his divorce became final AND he signed his severance agreement from the job he'd held for more than a decade. It was funny and wise, and it got at what working means to us in a sideways kind of way.

Cunningham, who is a novelist, talked about the unholy alliance of art and commerce, using the life and work of Rainer Maria Rilke as a thread. It's an interesting take, and I like its central message, which I take to be that the reason the alliance is unholy is that something like great literature is "The Wonderful Impractical." I like it, though I spend a lot of my time exploring why those things that seem impractical or peripheral are actually far more central to our concerns than we may think. Vital in fact. And actually, I'm betting Cunningham would agree, once we talked it over.

I was quite taken with Husted's essay, which as Holt pointed out worked back and forth between the personal and the social. It argued that once we start thinking of  "work" as "labor" or "manufacturing" or "unemployment rates," we start ignoring it as something that dignifies the lives of  living humans. And that is a very great mistake.  She asks, "Should we be questioning the ongoing waste of human creativity and skill, as well as the increasingly vast disparity of wealth in our country?" But it's really not a question; we know that important moral questions are at stake. And I'd already been thinking about them when I heard Husted pose them so eloquently.

Afterwards, I exchanged views with some friends in the audience (hi Kristy, hi Harriet!) and met some new people, and we had the sort of open-ended discussions encouraged by thinking about topics that touch us. As I've thumbed through the magazine at home, I've found several more stories and essays I'm looking forward to reading. So I encourage you to pick up a copy: Just join the mailing list by emailing:

So yes, that was my day, more or less, edited and folded a bit, more focused than my feeble consciousness musters on its own account, wayward as it is. I think we seek the patterns in our days, in our lives, and then the things that disrupt those patterns.  And then today, we are doing it all over again, hoping to get a little better fix on both yesterday and today.

That sounds more solitary than I mean it. The last thing I mentioned to the class was that they should listen to each other, write for each other, accept the responsibility that an audience involves. Because other people help us figure out those patterns I was talking about, help us recognize the opportunities and dangers within them. The class helped me identify some, that's for sure. So did the Important Editor and my fellow readers and the folks who gathered to listen at Broadway Books. Sometimes "thanks" just doesn't quite suffice.


Gwenn said...

A few months ago, I read to a group of fourth graders as part of "reading is fun" week. I was supposed to help make literacy seem cool and then answer questions about what it is I do for a living.

The questions that surprised me most were "how much do your paintings sell for?" and "how much money do you make?" Nine years old and already concerned with the potential income of different career paths...? I was concerned at first, but then I realized that these kids understood something fundamental.

Money represents an exchange of energy in a concrete form. Anything else that it seems to represent is a kind of religion--a layering on of meaning that society has evolved in order to make itself feel better, smarter, more structured, and more moral.

Barry Johnson said...

Gwenn, Thanks for story: Maybe the week should have been called "Reading is economically rewarding"?

I think maybe their interest in money, specific dollar values, has to do with fear. They know how precarious financial viability is these days, and one of the only ways they can protect themselves is with economic information.

To me, this is a sign of deformation in the culture -- presumably we want our children following paths that aren't simply determined by how much money might be involved. I agree with you, though: The ideology/religion of individual gain is an attempt to put the best possible face on something that's obviously socially destructive.

Gwenn said...

I don't think money is socially destructive. I think the religion that we've built up around money is what is damaging us.

Why do you say that money itself is socially destructive?

Barry Johnson said...

No, we agree. Money itself is a tool. That our children are so worried about it, that's a sign that things are out of balance.