Romancing the Press 

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A flotilla of images comes to mind when people talk about a newspaper, never mind the hated “media.” Let’s take a television advertisement in frequent broadcast several years back. The scene goes something like this:

Dashingly handsome investigative reporter works the phones, meets whistleblowers in back alleys, types out deadline-perfect copy between winks at gorgeous secretary then, having finished the job of battling monolithic forces and speaking truth to power, walks past a printing press in motion and bites into a ... Snickers candy bar.

Ask anyone in this business. The scene goes more like this: Exhausted but undaunted reporter marvels at thinning hair and baggy eyes, meets and talks with loads of people just as confused as he is but also a few in the know, types out ulcer-soaked copy between savage kicks at the desk, then, having finished the job of making the world’s bizarre plot a little clearer and more discernable, strolls past a panhandler on the downtown sidewalk and on into ... an unmade bed.

The job is that unglamorous, that demanding, and that nerve-racking—it’s enough to make a heart murmur seem like a birthday present. In fact, it’s a lot like moving a king-size mattress up seven flights of stairs. And I love it to pieces, even if sometimes I’m looking for the nearest cliff to jump off.

The romance of journalism is a topic better left to scriptwriters, ad agencies and the countless pundits on the left and right who delight in accusing reporters and editors of all sorts of hidden agendas and behind-the-scenes machinations. Let them talk.

Even journalists, themselves, can get caught up in the game. We talk about cultural reference points, the mechanisms of context and meaning, or of cultivating a community of interests at many demographic levels. Scholars turn the pages of John Milton’s Areopagitica. Then there’s Wilbur Storey’s salty, no-nonsense pronouncement: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.”

Phrases and words like these are worth a conversation. But a lot of crusaders are sometimes better off declaring war against their own knee-jerk selves, and beard-stroking phrases like “deconstructing the marginalized voice” tax the patience of readers who just want a good story accurately and fairly rendered in language that doesn’t condescend. Hopefully, a newspaper also furthers one of the handful of dialogues that matter in a free society, that between a newspaper, its readers, and the topics and leaders of our time. It really is that simple. But the simplest of goals are sometimes the hardest to get off the ground.

Assuming the editor’s chair at City Weekly after years of reporting and writing is a lot like leaving the matador’s support crew to fight the bulls for the first time. You know what a bull looks like. You know everything about the paraphernalia. There’s just a different quality of adrenaline surging through your veins when it’s you behind the “muleta.” Is that a lapse into professional romance? If so, it’ll wear off. And that’s when the fun starts.

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