Archive for June, 2009

Fire Engine Read

June 20, 2009

Fire Engine Read

By Cliff Barney

The story of the City of Pawtucket’s new fire engine was one of the great sagas of the 1950’s, at least in the pages of the Pawtucket Times, the small Rhode Island daily on which I broke into the news business.

The Times lived under the shadow of the neighboring Providence Journal, subsisting on a fine-grained coverage of local events that even the heavily staffed Journal did not deign to pursue. We included Rotary Club meetings, church socials, and four-generation parties as part of the regular beat system, right up there with the City Council and the police and fire departments. Our attention to schoolboy sports was unmatched. The Women’s Department (lately called “Lifestyle,” of course, though still headed by a female) offered a lavish smorgasbord of weddings and bake sales. All in all, one of the most boring publications I ever worked for; and yet in retrospect I can see that it offered something that its modern equivalents do not: a coherent, if limited, view of what local citizens were actually doing.

The news engine

Even for the Times, the fire engine odyssey was something special. I watched with amazement, from a safe perch in Sports, as it unrolled, canto by canto, over the course of more than a year, chronicling the entire story, from a request by the chief for a new hook-and-ladder, to rollout and engagement in battle. Our local Homer was a news hound who first tumbled to the opportunity from an item at a City Council meeting, the budget submitted by the Fire Department. A new engine today will run a city close to half a million dollars; even at less than a tenth of that, in the Fifties, the item stood out.

The reporter wrote a Council sidebar about the fire engine, and followed it up with a backgrounder a few days later on what fire engines cost and how long they lasted (ten or twenty years, I think). He coasted for a while with weekly updates as the council debated the matter and then broke loose when they voted to go ahead with the project.

He produced a weekly series of articles on specifications, tradeoffs, and funding; when these were settled and bids were solicited (big story), we got profiles of the various companies that made fire engines, plus a retrospective on where the city’s current fire engines had come from. Eventually a winner was selected (front page), the award was appealed (another page 1 piece), there were new hearings and discussion, all grist for the mill; and then a final award was made.

Fit Tab A into Slot B

That brought about what I think was the peak achievement of the series: the Times bought the reporter a train ticket and sent him to visit the manufacturer and write a vivid, nuts–and-bolts description of how the engine was actually being built. It took up most of a page the first day and trailed off in a series that ran throughout the week.

There ensued a period of marking time, as the delivery date was delayed, the city protested, and the matter was hashed out in the Council, all events worth noting; and then, finally, there was the actual delivery, a two-parter that began with an advance piece on the day before the engine arrived, and climaxed with a satisfying story on the rollout of the machine and the turning over of the keys.

And it still wasn’t over; the reporter had arrows left in his quiver for the testing of the vehicle, its delivery to a home station, and a follow-up on what happened to the machine it replaced. The end of the tale, its mustering for a first call to fight a real fire, was almost anticlimactic.

But though I mock the process now – and to be honest, may exaggerate it somewhat – I can see that it provided a kind of continuity that must have been reassuring to the burghers of Pawtucket. Very few of the subscribers can have read every installment but most of them surely must have noticed, over time, that the city was acquiring a major piece of equipment. There was no scandal connected with the story, no kickbacks, no crowds with pitchforks at City Hall, only a continuous stream of narrative that, while it may have lacked vitality or surprise, at least gave a sense that someone was paying attention.

All news is local

That’s a civic service that is being lost in the continuing diminuendo now playing in the daily press. Much handwringing accompanies the possible fate of the flashy exposes that newspapers pride themselves on: a Watergate story, the unraveling of government secrets, Presidential sex, Iran-Contra. These – most of them anyway – are indeed valuable; but I think that even more than so-called investigative reporting, it is the constant flow of neighborhood news that has sustained local newspapers for most of the last century. Henry Beetle Hough, the legendary editor of the Vineyard Gazette, who knew how to write stories directly on the linotype if he needed to, is recorded to have blessed an edition of his weekly with the remark, as it rolled off the press, “Once more, the Thunderer greets the world”; it was an ironic invocation of the then august LondonTimes, but it nonetheless carried some weight, in that the people on Martha’s Vineyard paid attention when the Gazette came out. That was true in Pawtucket, too, where the paper’s circulation, over 40,000, was half the city’s population.

The Times has fallen on difficult times since its days as a chronicler of fire engines; it now sells fewer than 9,000 papers daily, and the former owners have sold it to something called the Rhode Island Media Group. I doubt then that it covers the Rotary Club any more, since the only reason we did during my stint there was that the owner was a member. It certainly would not devote such attention to a single vehicle, not even one painted red, not unless the mayor had been caught joyriding in it, drunk, with the assistant principal of Tolman High School, and been rewarded with a gig on American Idol.

In itself, this is no great loss; the paper now has the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Boston Triple-A farm club, to feast on, and City Hall continues to provide weekly examples of political progress. Our old nemesis, the Journal, has been sold to some Texans.

But there’s a reason that the circulation has shrunk so greatly, and I suspect that it has something to do with the abandonment of the old press mantram, that news was whatever happened locally.  Today news is “content,” something to separate the dwindling blocks of advertising. That, I would say, is the real cause for alarm.

The Theater of the News at 28

June 7, 2009

The Theater of the News at 28


By Cliff Barney

It was at the very beginning of the Reagan administration that Lewis Lapham analyzed the process by which the nation’s press had become mixed with television, film, and pop culture to comprise “media,” an amorphous social entity that gave a continuous performance of what Lapham called “the theater of the news.” Himself a veteran of years in the editorial trenches at daily newspapers before becoming editor of Harper’s magazine, Lapham knew from his own experience that much of what eventually got into the paper was molded to fit an unspoken but agreed-on story of the day. His shining example was a Washington Post story about an 11-year-old African-American heroin addict, a piece that had the misfortune to win a Pulitzer Prize, leading to the revelation that no such 11-year-old existed. The prize had been given (and the story published), Lapham pointed out, because the story confirmed what the prize committee and the editors believed about African-Americans.

The Theater of the News, to call it by name, with capitals, is not always so lurid as the Post’s tale of race, childhood, and addiction. Lapham cites its persistence in the taking of “Third World” as the name of a real place as well as a convenient symbol, and in network television’s never-ending “troupe of celebrities [news anchors] transported with the ease of a Shakespearean scene change to Dallas, Vietnam, Chicago, Vienna, Washington, and the Afghan frontier. The technical and lighting effects were astonishing, the verisimilitude of the characters so startling as to make them seem almost lifelike.” This was in 1981; today’s digital phantasmagoria and breathless bloggery is even more hyperreal.

Staying with the Program

In effect, Lapham says, the news process has changed from one of saying “Here are the facts; what story do they tell?” to “Here is our story; what facts do we have that tell it?” And so today we are treated to routines showing Joe Biden as a blithering idiot, Sonia Sotomayor as racist/not a racist, depending on your allegiance, single payer health care as “off the table” and so needing no coverage. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show have a great deal of fun ridiculing these stories, but for all that, they continue. The issue is no longer what happened (what used to be called “news”); it is how what happened fits the current narrative.

Even in 1981, Lapham saw that the technological revolution was beginning to fragment the audience: “…instead of bringing people together, the sophistication of the new technologies has forced them farther apart and deprived them of the capacity to speak a common language.” This is a critical point, I think, and it is more so today, when the Internet and the blogosphere have multiplied the number of information sources. The fabled granularity of digital transmission has transformed us each into an audience of one, and I am encouraged to log in to “My Yahoo” or “me.com” or my special version of any act in the continuing news/entertainment vaudeville. This being the case, citizens are given no common vision, however accurate or inaccurate, of their society. Instead, Lapham concludes, we are “forever suspended in the revolving light show of names, issues, events, votes, hearings, treaties, wars, scandals, and final scores.”

Amateur Hour

It is for these reasons, for the fact that, as Lapham elsewhere puts it, that “news has moved out of the newspapers,” that, I think, newspapers are failing – not that they are being marginalized by blogs and free information. It is really absurd, when you think about it, that a major industry could be taken down by a ragtag bunch of amateurs – blogista writers who can barely write, reporters who do not bother reporting, there being no editors to urge them on, and a couple of smart-cookie digerati who saw quickly how they could give away what had previously been charged for. Against them newspapers could have marshaled a trained editorial army of many thousands. Yet, incredibly, these veterans have been fired and bought out, and newspapers have shrunk in every dimension in a relentless campaign to cut costs and maximize profits. With a few gallant exceptions, publishers have abandoned center stage and contented themselves with printing the playbill.

In the face of this near-collapse of a once fairly responsible press, Lapham himself has thrown up his hands and retreated to the bastion of the elite, rather like the nobles who shut themselves up in a castle and told each other stories while the Black Death raged among the population outside. One can hardly blame him, since the very nature of the Theater of the News makes any given publication just another act. Lapham’s castle emits a kind of modern Decameron every ninety days, the lavish Lapham’s Quarterly, in which a hundred sages and screwballs of all eras challenge the blogosphere in a collection of their pithier observations as they bear on contemporary issues, accompanied by illustrations so good that one can’t just glance at them. A noble effort, though clearly caviar to those with a taste for it.

However new forms are required, I think, for the mass of people wistful for a press that more accurately reflects their needs and desires. Newspapers are expanding their online activities, with varying degrees of success. It’s still not clear how reporting and editing staffs will be affected by this transition, or whether an independent press will be able to stand apart in the ongoing Theater of the News. There is a new cast of thousands waiting in the wings – the generation of young journalists with no place to go, who have matured just as their industry has been dying. One can hope at least that we are in for an exciting second act.

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