Thursday, September 30, 2004
Being the editor of Monterey County Weekly is exactly like being the ringleader of a three-ring circus. Here at 668 Williams Ave., as under the Big Top, there is more activity going on than a human being could possibly keep track of. In addition to the staff, there are something like 100,000 readers, any one of whom might call or walk in at any moment. There are the scary lions and tigers (metaphoric) and the clowns (real). Fire-breathers, muscle men, bearded ladies and all assortment of super-talented freaks. It helps to be able to juggle, and also to be able to walk a tightrope, often simultaneously, although it’s better to be able to delegate those tasks—to motivate others to do the difficult and dangerous stunts. But when someone takes a spill, it’s necessary to be able to do any number of tricks, and that includes sticking your head down the lion’s throat.
Tough job—yes. But there are only five things to keep in mind in order to succeed.
1. The history and principles of American journalism.
Look at it this way: Journalism is the only profession where the work you do is protected by an Amendment to the Constitution. Not just any Amendment, but the First. That just has to mean it’s important work.
American journalism has a rich and fragrant history, and it’s good to know something about it. It’s important to remember that its foundation was laid by people like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, each a partisan hero who used his newspaper (or his brother’s) to foment revolution. The whole new idea of the newspaper, right then, won its reputation as a brick in the foundation of democracy.
But it’s also good to recall that the American newspaper didn’t really come of age until the rise of the so-called “penny press.” When this whole journalism thing started to take off—around 1835—newspapers were owned by political parties. Every day, spurious accusations were cast, outrageous slanders committed, and ridiculous lies told in the name of readership and votes. It worked, to a point.
There were 55 newspapers in 1835 and there were more than 350 two decades later. During that time a deep evolution occurred. The penny papers (so-called because that’s the price for which they were hawked on the streets by newsboys) were variously scrappy or sophisticated, radical or reactionary, reliable or full of crap.
Whatever—people bought them. And most of the time, the better ones succeeded and the crummy ones failed. By the time the penny press culminated in the 1860s—an era characterized by the lurid sensationalism of James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, the crusading boosterism of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and the sober-sided analysis of Henry Raymond’s New York Times—newspapers had become popular for the first time in history.
And for the first time anywhere ever, ordinary people could find out what was going on in their community or in the world for themselves, by reading the paper.
Meanwhile, the bawdy penny papers became professional, and then invented the principle of “objectivity” (the better to sell to members of all parties)—and that is pretty much how American journalism came to be.
To be an editor here or anywhere, it is good to know this stuff.
And the secret but true fact is that most newspaper people—even those who work for big evil media conglomerates—are dedicated to the idea that a free press is the cornerstone of a democracy, and are proud of the legacy that idea has spawned.
That doesn’t mean we get the respect that the public gives, say, your average circus performer. But there is a saying often heard in newsrooms—a saying I actually learned in journalism school: Nobody gets into this business to make friends. It’s good for an editor to keep that in mind.
2. The unwritten and unspoken credo of the Alternative Newsweekly industry.
By the 1960s, America’s newspapers had two big problems—rock ‘n’ roll and Vietnam.
American culture, for better or worse, was becoming cool, and big dailies were painfully uncool. They were staffed by mostly well-meaning squares. And they were politically out of step with a generation that had a lot of very good reasons to distrust what they were reading.
This spawned a kind of Left Wing capitalist revolution on both coasts.
Whether responding to the cultural zeitgeist for political and artistic reasons, or recognizing an unmet need in the marketplace, or both, a bunch of journalism entrepreneurs started their own damn newspapers.
In mid-’60s New York, theater people were frustrated that neither the Times nor the Daily News nor the Herald Tribune nor anyone else would pay attention to the cool stuff happening off-Broadway. Curiously, they were the ones who hatched the idea of the Village Voice. They were then joined by antiwar activists, proto-feminists, Blacks and Latinos, gay men and lesbians, and rock-music intellectuals.
A few years later, in San Francisco, neighborhood activists trying to stop the “destruction” of what is now the financial district, made common cause with Haight-Ashbury acid-rockers and birthed the Bay Guardian. In Berkeley, political radicals spawned the iconoclastic Berkeley Barb (which pioneered a business model that works in most cities to this day, selling sex ads in the back of the book). They were called Alternative Newsweeklies (we use capital letters now) and the idea was simple: do what the dailies aren’t doing. Beat them on politics and rock ’n’ roll. Don’t be afraid to piss off The Man. And for crying out loud, write with some style.
Since that time, one or more has sprung up in every city in America. They share a family resemblance less for what they are than for what they aren’t—they are not stodgy, gray dailies.
In the intervening decades, as dailies have all been bought up by media corporations, the mission of the Alternatives has evolved. Now everybody’s cool—the market demanded it. But at the weeklies, we are still working hard to not be like the out-of-town-owned corporate dailies.
This can be crucial. For instance, the Weekly has been assertively against the war in Iraq—we questioned its legitimacy and its strategy from day one, as did many altertnative weeklies. So it’s not all rock ‘n’ roll.
The unspoken credo? I’m not saying.
3. This newspaper’s mission.
It goes like this: The mission of Monterey County Weekly is to inspire independent thinking and conscious action, etc.
It is self-explanatory. That’s the whole idea of a mission statement. I learned that fact from a pair of spendy corporate consultants, whom the Weekly brought in to put us through a two-day-long therapeutic process—which we all dreaded and then enjoyed.
We broke into groups and had Difficult Conversations, which were productive, as promised. We talked about what we Valued. We ended up in a conference room at the Aquarium, overlooking the seals and sailboats—and together wrote that one sentence. It’s so good I don’t even have to tell you what it means.
Except maybe for that thing at the end. “Etc.” The biggest little abbreviation there is. Three letters that could contain the whole world.
After crafting the briefest possible mission statement, we added a little bit of infinity to it.
It’s also kind of funny. It demonstrates our understanding that tackling important issues, although critical work, can only be done if we also bring some joy and humor to the job.
Bradley Zeve clipped a meaning from a dictionary and patched it onto his e-mail signature: “1. and others, especially of the same kind; 2. and so forth.” I like the second meaning better—it gives the mission more elasticity, more range. It probably means something diferent to everyone in the company. That might be a problem in some places, but here it seems to be working.
4. The Editorial Department’s mission.
This one is a bit longer. You should have seen it when we first brought it out at the Aquarium—it was three paragraphs.
The mission of the editorial department is to produce smart, in-depth journalism that informs, inspires and entertains readers in Monterey County every week.
Again, it’s simple. “Smart.” I only hire smart people. Give ‘em a tricky test before I hire them. “In-depth”: These people are obsessive. When I tell them to call someone, they call five people. When I say I want 850 words, they give me twelve hundred. They read Web sites for fun. They’re deep.
“Inform; entertain.” We can do that. All we have to do is keep abreast of important events in Monterey, Salinas, Carmel, Pacific Grove, Seaside, Marina, Pebble Beach, Big Sur, North County, South County, the 13-plus municipalities, hundred or so political organizations and neighborhood groups, plus galleries and theaters and nightclubs and…etc. And then write it up.
“Inspire.” That’s when it gets golden. When a news article of a review or a cover or photograph can fill the reader with enlivening or exalting emotion; or motivate to action; or simply affect or touch; or if it can draw forth or arouse; or even if one thing in this week’s paper can just “cause to inhale deeply” (the original definition, apparently)— then the editor knows he’s doing his job.
5. The passionate and honorable petulance of reporters.
Reporters and editors are exactly like cats and dogs. They are vastly different kinds of beasts, with not much in common, evolved from two radically different zoological streams, and yet they share the same domestic space. (Don’t ask which is which—the analogy falls apart. They’re different—that’s the whole point.)
There are many joys that come from being the editor of Monterey County Weekly, and frankly there are some pains. Every week, two or three times a week, I am met with these joys and pains at my regularly scheduled editorial meetings. That is where The Real Work occurs.
A lot of an editor’s work, these days, is done at a desk in front of a screen, using a keyboard and a mouse, and a telephone, which rings a lot, including every time the editor takes a bite of a bagel or sandwich. That’s where stories are made ready for publication; headlines written; memos sent out; budgets ignored; etc. But it is in the editorial meetings that ideas are heard and argued; assignments made; angles fine-tuned; etc.
Out of habit, I do keep items 1 through 4 above, in mind when I walk into the conference room here at 668 Williams. And there I am met by a staff of writers who have minds of their own.
Ultimately, the editor must trust his reporters. That’s how it works. They’re out there going to meetings and confronting public officials, and knocking on people’s doors and sitting in their living rooms while the editor is talking on the phone with his mouth full. And it’s their names on top if the stories. (It’s of course necessary for the reporters to know that the editor isn’t going to fall for any BS—that’s what makes the trust go both ways.)
As it happens, most editors are born stubborn as mules and relatively certain of their own rightness. And so The Real Work of running a newspaper—this newspaper anyway—involves a ruthless and delicate push-and-pull between these two subspecies of journalists, all of whom are trying to create some inspiration. Sometimes it can get a bit hairy.
This is where the “etc.” comes in. Newspapering is one of those life choices that demands a little bit extra. The grizzled newsroom veterans who ran the journalism school I attended—not a particularly sentimental lot—referred to it as a vocation.
And it’s like they say back in New Jersey, “ya gotta love
it.” That’s what it boils down to, and that’s what an editor
has to bring to the job. Not some mamby-pamby kind of love,
but the kind of hardcore, demanding love that you bring to
your family. With that stuff, etc., it’s just one foot in
front of the other.