Meeting The Media

I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching.

The Huntington Chamber of Commerce held a “Meet the Media” breakfast where Long Island and metro-area journalists talked about the year’s biggest story, the least reported story, and how to get a press release seen as a story. This was interesting. What got me, though, was when they wrestled with what they must do to be relevant themselves.  This is what I’d encourage:

Important Over Popular. I realize advertisers probably put undue emphasis on social media, but please let’s not have the peanut gallery dictate what’s covered.  I have Facebook, LinkedIn, and friends who forward things inspiring, appalling or fun to argue with. I dig Digg. I even have Twitter followers, though I’ve yet to tweet. We cherry pick and pontificate, yielding finely niched popularity contests, personal statements, and less than civil, questionably educated debate. Should journalists participate? Sure. It’s a good place to connect and study people. This isn’t journalism, though. It’s the public square.

One local newspaperman pointed this out to his fellows, and I hope others will agree: You are the journalists. You are trained to uncover truth, draw attention, and provide context. Be savvy, but don’t pander to lowest common denominators or outspoken niches. Rise above, shine a light, and lift rocks where no one has looked. Wield your critical thinking skills, access to information, experience and judgment. Connect the dots, break it all down and serve up what you think people need to know. The masses will follow.  

Good News and Bad News. We count on journalists to administer bad news. However, many otherwise intelligent people willfully ignore the media because time with it leaves the impression that the world is fully corrupted and likely a lost cause. Why? Editors know train wrecks sell.

One journalist made a point about this that was sharpened by the silence that struck before people realized his example was hypothetical: Were it revealed that the homeless girl from Brentwood stole her Intel-Semi-Finalist Winning Project from some kid in Jericho that would draw huge response. If that happened, journalists should burst our collective bubble. Thank God, it hasn’t.

Fortunately, the journalist’s point was dual. His example also showed the value and occasional front-page caliber of good news. Despite the lack of a gallows draw, everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. It was Samantha Garvey who, in the face of disheartening adversity, had the support and initiative to succeed. It is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Following the story as it brightened, I purchased a “real” newspaper to hug.  It was at least as important as ever-impending doom and gloom. Samantha moved people to reach further and open wider. Some found faith in humanity, which can be hard to come by. Others found faith in themselves. Some stepped up to help that girl and her family, generating stories of their own.

Headlines and Detail. It’s true. Few can afford to pay attention. Even those with a capacity to focus have lots to keep track of. I don’t just read local media. I like regional stuff, and world stuff, and diverse trade stuff. I’m an existentialist egghead seeking to cover all perspectives. Sometimes you’ll even catch me reading tabloids and pondering overexposed life. Mostly, I’m striving to reconcile competing worldviews in search of my own piece of truth. That’s a lot of news. I have a full life to live around that. Often I’m limited to headlines and first paragraphs, grateful for whoever invented the inverted pyramid.

This doesn’t mean I only want one paragraph. Rather, it makes me even more reliant on journalists who get the full scoop. Those who at least link source material come across as open, educated, and respectful of intelligence. Maybe you don’t see too many stats showing people clicking through long articles, but I suspect those who do use them fully, and cite the heck out of them to others. These diehards are your experts, teachers, advocates and students. They include a critical minority that leads thought, and gets things done. A journalist who can fill a few pages well has probably also got a better grasp on what those first paragraphs should say.

If paper’s too expensive for that many words, fine, and even poets like me don’t want journalists wasting space with flowery nothings. Arrange front pages to facilitate skimming and conserve words elegantly, but please don’t cut to fit shrinking attention spans. We’re dumbed down to the bone already, thanks. Give us substance.

Bottom line? I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching. We don’t need news based on what we already think we know, what the average blowhard’s willing to compute, or what will freeze attention in shocked stares. Yes, there are liars, thieves, fools and fouler things. We shouldn’t whitewash that, or minimize the media’s watchdog role. However, striving heroes and successes need spotlights too, preferably in a balance that mirrors reality. We must be warned, but also educated and inspired.

It’s unfortunate that news seems to be weighted on scales used for entertainment more than those used for academic contribution. Yes, great teachers employ both – and journalists ARE the ultimate continuing education machine — but shouldn’t we lean just a little bit more toward the latter? I think so.

Betting Long on the Island

In a world of shrinking newsrooms, Long Island has so far managed to remain a haven for journalism and educated opinion spanning a breadth of perspective.

I’m privileged to serve Leadership Huntington, a local nonprofit serving those open to learning about and getting involved in our town. One cornerstone is an intimate 9-month community leadership program that explores the Town’s history, government, businesses and nonprofits.  We explore issues, build relationships, and find we are not alone. What happens in Leadership stays in Leadership, but you can bet that at some point someone will assert that we live on Long Island, pay its taxes and endure its challenges because Long Island is the best place to live. Debates ensue and I wonder – Is it? Is this fish of an island feeding on the Eastern Seaboard really “all that”?

I think so, mostly because it’s my fish with four generations of family, all they’ve built that can’t be moved, and scores of relationships built over lifetimes…and I do like the food. Where else are corporate franchises so pressed to compete with high quality, reasonably priced local fare? Oh, and Dairy Barn — I’m not the biggest drive-through fan. I favor a world where people get off their rears periodically, but I do love Dairy Barn…

Long Island is a pretty place with sandy beaches and beautiful trees, but it’s hard to find open space among the people. Too many trees have given way to greedy sprawl. It’s hardly the only place with good cooking and historic towns. Much as I love my people, I could just visit. I have plenty of far-flung friends inviting me to be their much more affordably-placed neighbor. When I left for five years, there really was one thing I missed…

Local Media.

I’m from New York, land where the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are just a few resident heavyweights. You can get them anywhere, though, and they’re globally relevant. However, I never realized how valuable Newsday and News 12 were until I lived where local reports were scarce. Worse, they were neither substantive enough to have weight nor local enough to matter, at least not by standards I took for granted. I missed the incredible resource Long Island has in diverse platforms for local voices. There are many quality publications. Here are my favorites:

The Long Island Press is everywhere. Its sticker price belies its content.  I’m the kind who reads Rolling Stone for its in-depth reporting, and I LOVE that I can pick up a local parallel for free and find hardcore, follow-the-money journalism, with an edgy intelligence that’s doesn’t kowtow to a PC, ADHD world, but speaks frankly and maintains a daring willingness to say what it sees….the best, the worst, and all manner of mediocrity.

Then there’s the Long Island Business News, which I find more sincere and filled with facts I can use than the Wall Street Journal. Even their advertising can be newsworthy and there’s real interest in highlighting those trying to make a dent, and helping the rest of us simply trying to make a living. I may be alone in getting a rush when I receive my annual Book of Lists, but I’ve seen enough wonks maintain boxes of papers for reference to think not. I’ve also spent enough time squished into spacious venues to know I’m not alone in jostling to connect and be inspired at their celebrations highlighting the region’s greatest hopes and most profound legacy-leavers.

Closer to home (Syosset’s my address, Huntington’s my home), I relish the Long Islander.  Founded in 1838 by the great poet and newspaperman Walt Whitman, it offers a depth and breadth to Huntington that some states would be lucky to have. Some criticize staffers for being too involved. I understand this concern, generally, but this is very local. I’m glad they’re transparent about being part of the community they’ve haunted for nearly two centuries. It seems to inform rather than skew reporting. They’re more balanced than others who don’t acknowledge local interests, and cover what they find important rather than immediately popular. Staffers do seem encouraged to make a difference on their own time. They’re good neighbors who take their responsibility to their community seriously.

Then there’s the Corridor, whose nexus is Route 110. Here, honesty in influence reaches a whole new level. It’s not advertorials they’re selling, exactly, but they tell you precisely who the top sponsor is by making that the cover story. All original, all the time, the Corridor illustrates people behind the machines.  Beyond paying sponsors essential to the business model, the passion is for giving a lift to new entrepreneurs, BIG ideas, and exploring opportunities, potential pitfalls and newsworthy events. The potential is enormous.

In a world of shrinking newsrooms and vanishing rags; where you read articles in sixteen publications that have copied each other word for word, Long Island has so far managed to remain a haven for journalism and educated opinion spanning a breadth of perspective. This is not easy – intelligence doesn’t come cheap even if you can get writers to give their best for free, and that just doesn’t seem right if we can avoid it. I’m proud to budget my subscriptions, duly note the advertisers, and contribute whatever I can to keep the presses – and their reporters — running. After all, they not only enlighten debates on whether this Island is worth the challenges, they help us see how we might address them. They’re also one of the main reasons I love this place.