Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fifteen Years Well Spent

Fifteen years ago today when I began my journey in journalism I had little idea what I would eventually commit myself to. At the time I was in the midst of pursuing my bachelor's in English at Rutgers University. My exposure to the news world was limited to what I saw on television and read in the newspapers. I knew nothing about how this business worked from the inside.

George Taber and Donald Wilson gave me a shot as an intern at the newspaper they ran in downtown New Brunswick. Back then the office sat above the Starbucks Coffee shop on George Street. The proximity of the newspaper's front door in relation to the coffee shop created a strange phenomena.

Even though you had to walk up a flight of stairs to reach the office and the newspaper's name was emblazoned on the door, random Starbucks patrons popped in with confused looks on their faces. With a little guidance they found their way to the java but you still had to spell things out for some.

 "No, this office is not part of Starbucks. That is downstairs and next door . . . where you clearly saw people serving up coffee."

As I quietly celebrate this anniversary, the confusion of those lost patrons reminds of the necessity for journalists and news media.

Before I became a reporter I took for granted how I learned about the happenings in my community and the world. Family and friends might mention bits and pieces they heard but I never got any details unless I paid attention to the news. When you accept secondhand information as fact and don't make an effort to open your own eyes you end up in the wrong place like a lost coffee shop patron.

And I was clearly confused when I took those first fumbling steps in the news industry. I had no idea New Jersey had a long-running rodeo down in Pilesgrove or that prominent companies such as Toys "R" Us had their headquarters here. It did not really dawn on me until several years later that I simply never paid attention.

Through the guidance of my mentors I had the chance to grow professionally and moreover as a man. You cannot simply thank people who changed the way you observe the world. Those early days working for George and Don created a whole new future for me that I had never considered.

The news business changed considerably during my career most profoundly with the rise of the Internet. The startling truth is that the media industry spread the word about the Web yet did little to embrace the evolution the technology represented. Eventually we all became aware that this market had changed forever. The transition has been brutal at times.

Some news outlets found ways to adapt while others tried to ignore it. Publications went into survival mode. Newsrooms cut staff; print fell out of favor in the digital world. A dangerous notion emerged among the public that news should be available for free.

I can argue that journalists work hard to gather information and craft stories. And that social media spreads fragments of information, which people are prone to misinterpret when passed from friend to friend. In the end everyone must decide how much they care about details vs. a tweet.

While some readers do invest time to fully understand news there are those who think headlines are enough to stay informed. Such a pity.

In times of true crisis, the news industry stops some of its own bullshit and focuses on what matters. Unfortunately we drift back to coverage that "sells". This business is not perfect nor wholly altruistic.

The way I look at it the First Amendment is a responsibility not just a right. We have to both insist on spreading accurate details while also demanding such in return.

Imagine a world where no news companies existed. Not on TV, radio, print, or the Web. What if we only had banter from personal connections to inform us of what is happening in the world?

If you have read this far chances are you don't rely only on social networks for your information. However you likely know at least one person who does.

Just because it is difficult to get ahead in the news business these days it doesn't mean I want to give up or start taking shortcuts.

George and Don eventually sold the newspaper. I stayed on for several more years until the beginning of 2011 when there was a "parting of ways" with the new owners. Now I work solely on the Web. I have no fear of change.

(Sadly Donald Wilson passed last November).

My hope is the next fifteen years of my career includes a revival of the importance and relevance when it comes to news. Journalists must not put themselves or popular notions in front of the story. Otherwise we will all be lost like someone looking for the Starbucks next door.

Flame and Bone

When I was made from fire
Poured into the tender vessel of caution
That keeps my smoke from rising
Quickly did I discover that apart from crisp drizzles or falling snow
The world chilled my touched
Walking the narrow cornered gap between girders and cut stone
One learns to tuck his shoulders in or risk
Jostling a neighbor passing by rapt with want
For a clear path without the distraction
Of another man's boiling eyes
The tip of a finger
That oldest of all weapons
Grown deadlier and pristine in its invention
Gathers a mote of a cinder on its bare flesh
And turns pondering how best to scratch the impious itch
Prying open the tender seam
Where the oil of thought dews
Offering a new wick to ignite
Squirming alive as a salamander of mischief
That yearns for a taste of air it is so ready to devour
The steam of breath betrays me
Before the glint of orange spreads
In popping bright waves
Eroding the fibers feeding it
Leaving naught but ash
As my shell of quietude falls away