Changes prompt reflection, or should. Changes of publisher and managing editor at our paper prompt these.
Much of what we have spoken about in this space over the last months - and a good deal of each day's local news - has been about new things happening in town, and about new things anticipated. We have spoken less about what is now present, because, like Hawthorne's "Purloined Letter," things that are in front of our eyes, the obvious, can so easily be taken for granted, if not overlooked. And because many things are woven so closely into the fabric of each day, their meaning and significance are also the hardest to determine with any precision.
Earlier today you picked up this newspaper from your front steps, or from the box on the corner, or from the pile in front of the cash register. A daily habit. (A good daily habit. Please keep it up.)
Later today the paper will be in the recycling bin, or wrapped around a teacup in a box meant for storage, used to light a fire, slid into the bottom of the bird cage - or associated with other pets in other ways I won't describe here.
Between earlier today and later today, you will have scanned the national and local news headlines, or perhaps read a bit deeper into the stories; scanned or read the obituaries; scanned or read the reports of yesterday's basketball game; scanned or read analyses and opinion; scanned legal notices; set aside the supermarket flyer for later use, noted local sales or clipped coupons; did the crossword, caught up on what Garfield was up to, figured out your astrological future, and read Dear Abby's response to Perplexed in Peoria.
All of this will become fodder for conversations, and provide some direction for what we think and do, all during the day. (I have some reservations about the astrological thing, but my reservations, I am told, are entirely idiosyncratic. Leos are like that.)
From the front to the classifieds, these pages together are a statement of what matters on this day and in this place, in little things and in big, and, assembled at its best, is a statement of why what matters matters. That is the root of the power of the newspaper; we rely daily on a hundred editorial judgments about what matters. And, in turn, those editorial judgments have influence on our own. That power, of course, begets its own suspicions: journalists and editors have had for some time a national job approval rating about a league and a half below that of Philadelphia lawyers. And journalistic "bias" has been a public hot-button topic for how many years?
But in regard to the publication of news in our town, those suspicions are generally background noise, a constant and necessary hum, but in the background nonetheless. One reason is certainly that in the close quarters of our town we inevitably get to know those who report the news and those who edit it close-up, get to assess them and the quality of their work quite directly. But the biggest reason is, I believe, that in important ways and on most days we simply don't think of our local paper the same way as we think of Big Media. That's because it largely succeeds in its more particular mission; to identify what matters locally. The New York Times prints neither our real estate transfers nor the results of last Tuesday's Council meeting.
(An analogy: Rev. William Sloane Coffin said once in my hearing that he could make any declaration he wished from his pulpit, carry on even the most radical of arguments certain to make many squirm in their pews, as long as he was attending carefully to the pastoral needs of his congregation, to the baptizing and the marrying and the burying, to be reliably present at the times of crashing anguish and at times of celebration of little victories. But he granted that his experiences in the anguish and the celebrations were what gave substance and weight to his arguments from the pulpit. I suspect that in important respects a local paper can be what it wishes on its front page and on its editorial page, as long as its founding, fundamental brief is fulfilled. And in fulfilling that, writers and editors know better how to interpret the matters on their front pages.)
Our concerns as news consumers about "the press" are fundamentally about the exercise of news judgments. These concerns about how it works in local newsrooms are in fact shared by those who live in them.
Journalism, happily, has the status of a profession. A profession not only literally "professes" to know something particular, but also thinks about what its practitioners ought to do with what they know, and how they ought to do it; professions, that is, are by definition introspective. Within the profession of journalism there are raging debates about fundamental issues that on their face are a century or more old but whose aspects have changed under a whirlwind of altered political and business climates: issues of fact and opinion, of the public's right to know and the rights of privacy, of facts and the contexts that grant them proper meaning, of the proportion of space appropriately budgeted for local news, AP wire reports, advertising, the weather - and for Perplexed in Peoria.
One of the debates current inside the profession has to do with how journalists are trained - again, the subject is really about news judgment: how is it best formed, what are the conditions for its proper exercise?
A year ago, a new Columbia University president took on a redefinition of the mission of what is perhaps the nation's premiere journalism school. The result: no increased concentration on investigative methods or managing the business side of the house - that is, no increased concentration on particular journalistic skills - but an extended curriculum with fresh emphasis on a wider range of general subjects historical, philosophical, geographical, cultural, scientific, based on the assumption that journalists acquainted more intimately with more parts of the world can themselves exercise more careful judgment, one that leads in turn to more thorough public understanding.
None of the basic issues have easy answers. No matter what a paper's circulation, readership, or scope, none escapes addressing them. That the issues themselves are alive, are integral to the hundred contingent editorial judgments made from the keyboard to the offset each day, measures proximate success.
Having a gaggle of smart people in the newsroom who are temperamentally suited to reflection about the choices they make in what they write, how they write it, and how it is presented would be a boon to any paper. For a newsroom, and for a product, as small as ours it is a happy miracle. Ladies and gentlemen, they are here.
(Although, today, we must say goodbye to one of them. From the time I began writing this column, Megan Phillips conspired with Patricia Matson to be incredibly generous in editorial support and judgment. Megan has given me more discretion in subject matter and style than I had a right to expect, and, whenever I tested the limits of both, she understood why. That's quite a lot. I, and we, will miss her.)
G.E. "Skip" Lawrence is a resident of Phoenixville.