Thursday, October 05, 2006

In which we are a Source: profile on The Union's former editor

The cover story in the Humboldt County North Coast Journal's Oct. 5 issue profiles The Union's former editor R.S., who was here from fall 2002 through December 2004.

Last week one of the reporters sent an email asking what, as a reader of The Union, I had observed during this period.

I said is very interesting now, to be in this position in the journo 'manufacturing' process ... usual position is standing outside pointing finger and saying 'why don't you get the real story?'

A difference of perspectives can do wonders for understanding... My first impulse was to mutter "why me" and hastily redirect her elsewhere.
(like I said, it does wonders...)

But it was clearly time to put up or shut up, so I answered her.

and also said:
if I'm not comfortable with how the story comes out, I'll want to post the gist of [my response]* on my blog. ...

May end up posting it, or some of it, on NC Documents within the next day or two. Not because I'm unhappy with the outcome, really, just that it's so...incomplete.

The story's balanced. Very balanced.

do sources always have this reaction?

[RS on the newspaper building] "...we can put skylights in there and maybe shed some light on things. So that would be great. At least we would get some sunlight in."

Skylights? The anecdote seems telling, but it's hard to say what it tells. There are several potential Somervilles it indicates, each of them with some precedent in the man's career...
"...I was getting the itch to go back in the newsroom again. I was looking for a paper that was looking for an editor that wanted to do some of this stuff. And I preferred a smaller paper. A community paper."

At that time, The Union, a 140-year-old paper in Nevada County, Calif., was undergoing tremendous change. ...
Anna Haynes, a blogger in Nevada County ( said by e-mail last week that she has Somerville to thank for turning her into "a journalism junkie." It was September 2002, and the paper had just gone through a summer with a new publisher and no editor, a period in which, she said, the paper was "a "referee-free" zone ... "with the publisher egging people on ... and so I think there was a collective sigh of relief when [Somerville] came on board. I saw him as a voice for civility in the community, I found his columns on journalism interesting," she said.

Sure, she had her criticisms. But, she said, Somerville "had to work with a fractious publisher and a fractious community," in which a "major power struggle" was going on surrounding development issues. And perhaps, she surmised, the problems she saw were just the nature of small-town newspapers.

For now, an observation (which doesn't exactly pertain to this article; the NCJ reporter's question was open-ended) from Language Log:
The journalists already know what the stories are. Their questions are not designed to discover any new facts or ideas, but rather to get quotes that will fit in to designated places in the frameworks of logic and rhetoric that they have already erected.

The selection of different parts of my response to quote would have made for a dramatically different end result.

Two observations:
  • Stories are much cleaner than realities. But maybe the writers have to shape the realities, else the stories would be too pointless and painful and sprawling to read. Our minds want/need a nice spiffed-up interface to reality.

  • Deciding what to say in response to an open-ended interview question is like deciding which direction and how sharply to turn the wheel, when you're driving blind - you know (or at least retain the illusion) that what you say will affect the outcome, but you don't know how to orient your contribution, to keep the result on the road.
    I thought the story'd be heading into the gully, so was pulling firmly to the left, and when it came to a stop the story was over on the left shoulder.*
    no oncoming traffic, fortunately...
Many thanks to the NCJ reporters for including the NCFocus URL.

  • Previous, very brief North Coast Journal mention of RS here.

  • To my reader who's come flooding in from Eureka: hello, and if you prefer gore and dismemberment to balance, try the "some of my many gripes about the paper" links near the bottom of the sidebar, on your left; this post gives an overview.

  • Disclosure, re extent of my connections to RS -
    I never met or spoke to him while he was editor of The Union, but we did correspond a fair amount by email (not printed in story: "like I said previously, S was orders of magnitude more communicative than others..."); on 3 occasions since then, we've met for coffee at my request and discussed journalism, readership, the paper etc, though not in great detail.
    We had no contact in the run-up to this story.

  • Further reflection on tone of the NCJ piece:
    in a word, masterful. The emergence of blogs gives reporters new freedom...

  • Speaking of which, the attitudinous Capt. Buhne of the Buhne Tribune weighs in. NCFocus's milquetoast blog monopoly on this story will not be challenged.

  • More from Language Log on (oral) quotes; two examples

Previous post in "In which..." series: In which we are a stabbing suspect.