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Vail Daily Editor Don Rogers: Some people still care about world of words

Don Rogers
Vail, CO, Colorado
newsroom@vaildaily.com

It was just a little question, more a musing, on Facebook to start the day.

The last thing I expected was to start a conversation that ran the length of Sunday with people from Southern California to Upstate New York, among journalists and readers and my favorite, regular readers who also write.

Actually, I didn’t start it. That began with some e-mail exchanges with a bright, serious college student, Shane Musgrove, who had some column ideas for the paper. You might have read his first of a series of three essays on this page Thursday.

He worried that his work might be denser than most, and would that work in the daily newspaper.? I’m paraphrasing — a lot — here. My answer: Well, yes. Hell yes.

You see, truth be told, I’m of the James Michener school. That is, read everything, the classics, the crap, cereal boxes if that’s all you can find. There are lessons in all of it, light and heavy. Yes, I’m a little extreme here. I can’t not read.

And when it comes to the commentary section of the paper, the wider and deeper the forum, the better. Just so it’s tilted heavily local. Otherwise, for whatever reason, the section is not read much. I’ve moved three community papers as editor from commentary sections filled with the work of largely nationally syndicated “masters” to ones dominated by local “yokels.” A funny thing happened at each, including here: The public responded and became a lot more engaged with the section.

Sunday morning, thinking about the e-mail conversation with Shane, I wrote the following in Facebook:

“Been having this e-mail conversation that basically concerns quality of writing and where it fits in a community newspaper. Readers respond most to local writers and issues, far more than they do to purely high quality writing. It was this way at three papers (West, East and here in Colorado). Why is that?”

I don’t have any highfalutin’ notions about Facebook, no scorn for postings about our everyday events that others might find pedestrian. I’m only an occasional visitor (just don’t have the time right now), but I love just those little nuggets about my Facebook friends, this odd collection of high school and college classmates, current and past colleagues, and sources and community contacts willing to share.

Still, I’m mentioning all this now because my own little musing led to the ideal of Facebook for me. The discussion was a virtual salon, with a subject that I’m sure most find esoteric yet a few have some passion for. I don’t mind saying I loved it and left richer for the thread.

I took out the names of the posters. Some said they didn’t mind if their names were in there. I just didn’t want to risk abusing the forum for those who did not get back to posting about using the discussion in this more public forum. Besides, in this case, the message is what matters.

Anyway, here’s part of the string:

For me, local issues are more important. I still like high quality writing, but I just don’t always have time to read it. I can scan the local news and know what’s going on, and get more in depth if/when I have time.

I have to read one of my major clients’ local newspaper for my job–and yes, they always seem to comment on the local editorials. I think its because the locals are writing about what is in their “back yard” much of the time-and “all politics is local.” (I think that is the quote.) And some of them also like to vilify each other at times–even if they know it is a lie. Very sad to me.

I think it is because people in this country (more so than many other places) are very “me” oriented and respond to what touches them personally more than they do universal issues. I suppose that is human nature to a degree, but it also reflects a lack of intellectual curiosity. And look at our educational standing globally compared to some other leading nations … particularly our reading levels. If reading levels are low, appreciation for good writing would surely be low as well. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to know virtually nothing about world affairs, but they sure know the ski news. It may also be a small town vs big city thing … I don’t think that was my experience to as great a degree when I lived in Chicago, NY, LA or SF.

I keep up with world news, though just because it’s world news does not make it good writing. Lately the biggest local news for me that I feel I need to keep up on is the murder rate in my neighborhood, and why the mayor took away our police presence. Who cares about skiing? PS I hope that didn’t sound snarky…I didn’t mean it to.

I didn’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with keeping up with local news … I just think there is a lack of interest in this country in larger issues and other cultures sometimes. And, of course, these are all generalities. Anyone who would carry on the dialogue Don started here probably doesn’t fit those general traits. There are certainly intelligent and curious people in the U.S. … but there is also a LOAD of truly stupid, insulated people.

I appreciate high quality writing about the local issues I care about… I see no reason to have to give up one for the other but, more often that not, the quality of writing at the local level leaves something to be desired. What’s happened to journalistic standards these days? By “respond” what do you mean (ie; letters to the editor, etc)?

Rogers: I mean “respond” with, yes, letters and Web comments, sometimes guest columns, e-mail and also conversation while I’m out and about in the community. Letter volume in particular is a crude but accurate indicator of engagement with the paper.

I don’t think a lack of “Intellectual Curiosity” is really fair or why. People respond to their local paper because this is often the only local news outlet, with local radio almost non-existent and with news aggregators, newspapers, and so forth all over the web someone can follow national and world events with ease. I know the complaint I hear about the local papers now, and since people know I used to be in the biz they talk to me, is that there is very little local content so what is written they notice and respond.

James – I agree with some of your points, but I’m sorry, I stand by the lack of intellectual curiosity statement as a general criticism of society at large. The greater media is pandering to the lowest common denominator … which is lower than I ever recall seeing it. Reality TV, in particular, has turned people stupid. The thirst for real knowledge which I have seen in other times in my life has given way to the most banal and bottomfeeding mentalities. Again … if you are having this discussion, you wouldn’t be one of those people.

One other thing …. I hate seeing print newspapers going by the wayside. Sitting at a computer clicking away will never be the same as sitting with your morning coffee leafing through the pages of the morning local paper or the Sunday Tribune or Times. I fear that that ritual will one day be a thing of only memory and legend and I find that so, so sad.

Sad to say, we don’t get our local paper anymore. When it got too hard to find the stories through the ads, we dropped it.

Don, local news affects people’s homes, their kids, their taxes, their pay what they look at every day — their responses tend to be more visceral as a result. They focus on the issue, regardless of how well or poorly it is presented. Local papers pay poorly and place a premium on quantity, not quality. Are you finding it harder to recruit new reporters?

My father died before ever seeing the Internet, but he said to me once, “We will not be cutting trees down forever to provide people with information.” David Dillon makes the most salient point about Americans today. Probably because of a half century of hyper consumerism, Americans care more about their personal “stuff” and are among the least worldly of the developed nations. We see that in our national naivete about the history of Haiti and our two week attention span, we saw it our naivete about the Middle east, not knowing the difference between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida, which allowed them to con the country into a war for profit, we see it with the health care issue, the primary reason for wage stagnation and with the stripping of back regulation, forgetting the lessons of the great depression. But to your question, Don, there are plenty of sources to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, especially today, but local news is important and still the main stay of the people like us. In 1952, surrounded by NY ad Philly newspapers, my grandfather dropped the wire services and that was the start of our success.

This might be an odd thought, but regardless of the quality of the writing people are responding to anything that challenges thier, ideas or values or preconceived notions? Re-evaluating a conversation I had yesterday, David is more correct than I like to admit. Many people are just OK with what they know and hate to have those thoughts or beliefs challenged. Because people still have an investment in their local paper, anything printed that challenges those beliefs gets a strong reaction, because many feel all of the community should reflect what they feel.

It’s easy to place ALL the blame on the reader. Where’s the responsibility of the journalist to show us what high quality writing looks like? I think the journalistic bar has been lowered and the reader has adapted and lowered their expectations. When I come across a well written piece (regardless of the content), it comes as a pleasant and unexpected surprise in many cases.

I write columns for the Vail Daily about general things and try to use humor at times to point out the things I find ridiculous or despicable in our culture, but I have to admit I have gotten pretty aggressive in some of my letters in response to local issues and the strong disagreements I have with a lot of the people in the town I live in. So, maybe the truth is we all read different publications for different reasons. I just wish more people expanded their horizons more these days.

Your readers are able to relate more to folks like themselves. Has the content between the two groups been the same or are the masters discussing unrelatable issues? Also, as a society we see dumbed down writing as the norm (lack of vocabulary, punctuation and grammar) and become dumbed down as readers, which requires a continuation of the norm… it becomes a cycle. Readers become incapable of appreciating (or understanding) the high quality work because it’s beyond what they know.

I have great appreciation for quality writing and wish we could, somehow, foster an appreciation for it in our society today. It hasn’t always been this way.

Why can’t we have it all, as in “purely high quality writing” in our community newspaper(s)”? …

I think your content HAS to be relatable… that’s a given. How much emphasis is placed on the writing quality from your writers, Don (and at other publications, in general)? If the expectation is high, won’t they rise to the occasion or go home? Do we really have to settle for something less because of pay issues and deadlines? I would hope not…

You know the alternative to “high-quality writing” is “low-quality writing,” right?

Hey, there’s nothing more beautiful than a well-written news story…

Rogers: Yep, and on deadline, too, dammit! Our folks work very hard at their craft, from idea through accuracy of facts and context, and a story that flows. Some days are better than others, but never doubt the effort that goes into a craft that in essence you can never perfect. There is no 1 plus 1 equals two. Which is precisely what I love about our chosen quest.

I think point of view matters, as well. When locals discuss national issues, they may have a different take on them than someone living in NYC or DC. You come from a place of shared values and experience with the local writer.

Do you think all publications share that dedication? Our local paper (Small Town, MN) causes serious doubts as to whether they share that same journalistic standard. You’ve NEVER been typical in that field, Don! That’s why we love ya!

… Lots to think about. And here’s one little thought: “Quality of writing” to me is that rare glorious moment that the readers doesn’t realize he or she is reading, so engrossing is the story. It’s far different than fancy writing, which tends to be pretentious, pedantic, precious, prattle. Not to get too carried away with syllables and alliteration. …

Kudos for the distinction between good writing and fancy writing. Fancy writing is often bad writing, actually.

Ah, “quality,” that ever-elusive term pondered so by Robert Persig …

If is not something the reader is interested in, the quality probably won’t be noticed. However, if it is something the reader is interested in, the quality of the writing probably doesn’t matter.

Just one more thought: Perhaps more important than how one writes is what one says.


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