Friday, July 11, 2008

The weekly lull

I have worked for weekly newspapers much of my adult life, first The Riverfront Times when Ray Hartmann owned it, then the Connecticut Weekly regional section of The New York Times (which behaved in all respects like a weekly, though it was enfolded into a daily) and now The St. Louis American.

I like weeklies, because you get a breather. Publication days are something of a free day. You have a new edition of your paper to admire, fondle, gloat over, find mistakes in, wince at as you remember things you needed to get in absoutely this week somewhere, somehow, but forgot all about … and anything that happens on that day will be one week old before you come out again, so you are for the most part excused, for this one day, from worrying about what is happening that you might be missing, a gnawing feeling that defines the life of a journalist.

The internet is now destroying this peaceful lull in the life of the weekly newsman (like it is destroying so much else, including the advertising revenue base that enables us to print papers and then give them away for free). That’s why, as long as the internet has been around trying to destroy our industry and the one day of the week when I get to really relax, I have been trying to convince publishers we need a web-only editor who can be chasing the tail of the news 24/7, freeing me to that weekly cycle of reflection and reaction (and long lunches on Thursdays, when I don’t let anybody mess with me about anything!) to which I have grown accustomed. In my current gig, the publisher accepted my advice (love that guy), so we hired Kenya Vaughn as the person who gets to have a headache constantly, even on Thursday afternoon, when I am having three beers for lunch and sorting the last week of mail at The Tap Room.

Yesterday, I spent much of publication day getting on and off an airplane and getting settled in San Diego. San Diego! Southern California is my personal favorite patch of this good green and brown Earth. Though I have left the travel media hustle behind for the bloody, funky business of the Black Press, I maintain cordial relations with my former publisher in journalism’s cushiest sector (even sweeter than food and drink writers’ gigs, because travel writers also get to eat and drink on someone else’s dime, just in a different city or country every week).

I would like to think I am not stupid enough to burn a bridge connecting me to subsidized travel opportunities, but it so happens my former publisher is also a cool, quirky guy. He was a New York City rock critic at the dawn of rock criticism. He has in his collection a sketch the Captain Beefheart guy made during their interview back in the day and then left with him, as well as a photograph of Kiss in makeup, clowning with him, back when Kiss was just four chumps from Queens crunching power chords and experimenting with dressing up in costume to see if that would set them apart from all the other chumps crunching power chords. (That answer turned out to be, “Hell, yeah!”)

After travel logistics were conqueored yesterday, and my little family was set up in San Diego with temporary wheels and a place to sleep for the night, we hooked up with our best family friends, the Eilers (John, Catherine, and Claire), who happened to be wrapping up a vacation at the plush Poway digs of Catherine’s parents just as we are starting our lull in the sun. So there I was in sumptuous, suburban Poway, sucking down delicious Stone beers, looking out upon a desert paradise with children in the gleaming pool, while a new edition of The St. Louis American was just hitting the streets, thrilling a few people and pissing off plenty. That is so surreal, experiencing publication day of a paper that does power politics while you are on vacation. You get calls from the trenches all day. You can almost hear the explosions and the whizzing bullets on the other end of the phone. Meanwhile, you have a cold one in sunny San Diego, and a date with a blue pool. It’s weird.

Yesterday, for example, I got a call from a source in the North County fire service who called to say the St. Louis County police had just Tase’d his cousin to death. He said his twenty-something cousin had some kind of psychotic episode and ripped off all his clothes while fighting with his parents. The man’s mother called the police, the cops came, and the cousin ran outside naked and ended up getting Tase’d to death. My source was upset over the way The Post-Dispatch did the story (a common experience in black St. Louis) and eager that The St. Louis American come over and get the story right (another common request, not that we don’t miss and mess up stories, too).

Of course, just reading the Post report online now, I see the family didn’t speak to the Post reporter (I have to assume – or pray – she at least tried to speak with them ….), so the reporter would not have had much to go on other than the cops’ side of the story, which is all the Post told the public. I was told there were eyewitnesses, however, and it seems she didn’t speak to them, either. Maybe she tried, maybe they avoided her; maybe she didn’t even try.
We at the American are always left with a lot of troubling questions about the way the Post does what it does. There is, unfortunately, a vicious cycle in action here, where the black community typically doesn’t trust the Post to report their news fairly – Post reporters often don’t know or seem to care about the good news, and then they parachute in to do the bad news from the cops’ point of view – so the community stops talking to the Post, which pretty much guarantees the Post can’t do the black community’s stories fairly, even when the reporter and her editor actually want to do the story right.

This sucks. Even when seen from San Diego, with a cold Stone beer in your hand.

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