Subscribe to Oregon ArtsWatch 5: We write memos!

George Carter Needham, The Fortunes of a Street Waif

The ArtsWatch Pitch continues! Yes, we really need you to participate: to join his here at the site, to sign up for our eNewsletter (which will resume later this week!), to meet us at  Facebook and last, but FAR from least, become a paying member. Arts writing as we want and try to practice it takes money—for the knowledge and experience of the writers and for the time it takes to research, write and edit the work.

In my most recent essay-let, having made the case for the importance of art in our culture, I attempted to sketch the role of journalism in the relationship. Just to recap:

 “Journalism is about helping to develop that group narrative, that shared story, that common sense. Journalists are part of the culture they cover. They have the responsibility to help make it better. They do this by doing their best work and then listening to their readers add data, make better sense of the painting (or dance or political decision) than the journalist and make better arguments. And then take all of that into account in their next story. The understanding of journalists has to progress just as the understanding of the culture does. It’s the only way we stay relevant in the least.”

I have had and continue to have my issues with mainstream journalism, even during my long professional encounter with it at The Oregonian (a full 26 years, which makes me light-headed just to type). You know the criticisms of it at least as well as I do: Its narrow definition of “news,” its over-reliance on “experts” and “spokespersons,” the “objective orthodoxy” that serves as its intellectual basis, its reluctance to describe things itself or test the descriptions of other or build new descriptions from new evidence, the limited palette of story forms in employs, its fear of being scooped or getting caught straying from the conventional wisdom. We could go on, couldn’t we?

It’s one thing to make a very long list of practices we’d like to avoid. It’s another thing to replace them with something better. During my time at The Oregonian, I wrote a LOT of memos proposing different subjects, tones, approaches, graphics and products (Internet and otherwise).

Here’s an edited version of the start to one of those memos, which I include because it has so much bearing, ultimately, on what I hope for ArtsWatch.

I spent the shift editing stories by some of our better, mid-career reporters – one was on a sustainability conference, another dealt with the new nominees for the presidency of OSU, I can’t remember the other one offhand. The centerpiece was by one of our senior reporters on the Starlight Parade: we’d talked beforehand about giving it a “cultural” spin to give it a spine. I worked hard on all the stories, sent them back for minor rewrites, which the writers willingly agreed to do. And I left the building that night feeling good about what was going to be in the paper the next day: some competent, informed journalism.

When I got to my car, it was almost midnight, and the streets were still full of people loitering after the parade. As I started the short drive back to Irvington, I noticed groups at every street corner. They were arguing, laughing, canoodling or just watching. Mostly they were young, and occasionally they were loud and a little threatening.

I had to stop by the Convention Center for a light, right next to the Max line. Suddenly, I heard running footsteps, a lot of them, approaching quickly. I immediately rolled up the car windows and looked back, a little nervously. A pack of maybe a half-dozen kids, girls and boys, 13 maybe to 16 or 17, streamed by me. They in turn were stealing backward glances — they looked scared, really scared. I didn’t see anyone behind them, so I’m not sure what had spooked them – a cop? a drug deal gone bad? a tough guy from school? I have no idea.

I continued home. Again, at almost every corner SOMETHING was going on – a love spat, kids from different schools dissing each other, more laughter, something. And then I thought about what I had worked on for the past 9 hours or so. None of the stories I’d edited had a tenth of the life of that short ride home. I wanted to get out and start interviewing – what’s going on? what are you thinking? where will you be spending the night? are there any adults in your life and what are they like?

So the children running in the dark have become a metaphor for me: It’s what I want the stories I edit to have in them – something that makes me a little nervous, something that’s absolutely real, something that surprises me, something that makes me reconsider what I think I know about the world. It’s not easy – our story conventions aren’t as elastic as they might be, our reporters aren’t used to telling actual stories (I call them narratives below), we tend to go to the same places for news every day and so news becomes only what comes out of those places.

Are we relevant, revealing, coherent? Not until we include those kids. Not until the emotions of a June night bubble into our pages. Not until we start writing about a world that is a lot more complicated and messy than the seemingly orderly one we describe day in and day out.

Yes, I know, not the kind of memo that’s likely to convince someone. And that was just the start—a long list of suggestions followed. Some of those suggestions, we’ve taken to heart here at ArtsWatch. Others are waiting for enough money to pay for the reporting and writing time they would take. Tomorrow, I’ll go into them just a bit, just so you know that we didn’t jump into this endeavor without SOME consideration.

But I don’t know, maybe you’re ready to make the leap now? Without reading the rest of the memo? That would make you the best boss ever!

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