Thursday, April 10, 2008

War on the Media; Pt 2

What follows are excerpts from a novel, "In Our Town", by William Allen White, c. 1904.

(The premise is that a "country newspaper" publisher is reminiscing...)

The Young Prince

We have had many reporters for our little country newspaper -- some good ones who have gone up to the city and have become good newspaper men; some bad ones, who have gone back to the livery stables from which they sprang; and some indifferent ones, who have drifted back to the insurance business and have become silent partners in student boarding-houses, taking home the meat for dinner and eating finically at the second table of life, with a first table discrimination. But of all the boys who have sat at the old walnut desk by the window, the Young Prince gave us the most joy. Before he came on the paper he was bell-boy at the National Hotel -- bell-hop, he called himself -- and he first attracted our attention by handing in personal items written in a fat, florid hand. He seemed to have second sight. He knew more news than anyone else in town -- who had gone away, who was entertaining company, who was getting married, and who was sick or dying.

The day the Young Prince went to work he put on his royal garment -- a ten dollar ready-made costume that cost him two weeks' hard work. But it was worth the effort. His freckled face and his tawny shock of red hair rose above the gorgeous plaid of his clothes like a prairie sunset, as as he pranced off down the street he was clearly proud of his job. The pride never left him. He knew all the switchmen in the railroad yards, all the girls in the dry-goods stores, all the boys on the grocers' waggons, all the hack-drivers and all the barbers in town.

These are the great sources of news for a country daily. The reporter who confines his acquaintance to doctors, lawyers, merchants and preachers is always complaining of dull days.

But there was never a dull day with the Young Prince. When he could get the list of "those present" at a social function in no other way, he called up the hired girl of the festal house -- we are such a small town that only the rich bankers keep servants -- and "made a date" with her, and the names always appeared in the paper the next day; whereupon the proud hostess, who thought it was bad form to give out the names of her guests, sent down and bought a dozen extra copies of the paper to send away to her Eastern kin. He knew all the secrets of the switch shanty. Our paper printed the news of a change in the general superintendent's office of the railroad before the city papers heard of it, and we usually figured it out that the day after the letter denying our story had come down from the Superintendent's office the change would be officially announced.

...The longer the Prince worked the more clothes he bought. One of his most effective creations was a blue serge coat and vest, and a pair of white duck trousers linked by emotional red socks to patent-leather shoes. This confection, crowned with a wide, saw-edged straw hat with a blue band, made him the brightest bit of color on the sombre streets of our dull town. He wore his collars so high that he had to order them of a drummer, and as he came down the street from the depot, riding magnificently with the 'bus-driver, after the train had gone, the clerks used to cry: "Look out for your horses; the steam-piano is coming!"

...The Young Prince took no heed of the jibes of the envious. He was conscious that he was cutting a figure, and this consciousness made him proud. But his pride did not cut down his stack of copy that he laid on the table every morning and every noon. He couldn't spell and he was innocent of grammar, and every line he wrote had to be edited, but he got the news. He was everywhere. He rushed down the streets after an item, dodging in and out of stores and offices like a streak of chain lightning having a fit. But it was beneath his dignity to run to fires. When the fire-bell rang, he waited nonchalantly on the corner near the fire-department house, and as the crowds parted to let the horses dash by on the dead run, he would walk calmly to the middle of the street, put his notebook in his pocket, and, as the fire-team plunged by, he would ostentatiously throw out a stiff leg behind him like the tail of a comet, and "flip" onto the end of the fire-waggon. Then he would turn slowly around, raise a hand, and wiggle his fingers partronisingly at the girls in front of the Racket Store as he flew past, swaying his body with the motion of the rolling, staggering cart.

Other reporters who have been on the paper -- the good ones as well as the bad --have had to run the gauntlet of the town jokers who delight to give green reporters bogus news, or start them out hunting impossible items...

The Young Prince had the sense to know the truth and the courage to write it. This is the essence of the genius that is required to make a good newspaper man. No paper has trouble getting reporters who can hand in copy that records the events from the outside. Any blockhead can go to a public meeting and bring in a report that has the words "as follows" scattered here and there down the columns. But the reporter who can go and bring back the soul of the meeting, the real truth about it -- what the inside fights meant that lay under the parliamentary politeness of the occasion; who can see the wires that reach back of the speakers, and who can see the man who is moving the wires and can know why he is moving them; who can translate the tall talking into history -- he is a real reporter. And the Young Prince was that kind of a youth. He went to the core of everything; and if we didn't dare to print the truth -- as sometimes we did not -- he grumbled for a week about his luck. As passionately as he loved his clothes, he was always ready to get them dirty in the interests of his business.

For three years, his nimble feet pounded the sidewalks of the town. He knew no business hours and ate and slept with his work. He never ceased to be a reporter, never took off his make-up, never let down from his exalted part. One day he fell sick of a fever, and for three weeks fretted and fumed in delirium. In his dreams he wrote pay locals and made trains and described funerals, got lists of names for the society column, and grumbled because his stuff was cut or left over till the next day. When he awoke, he was weak and wan, and they felt they must tell him the truth.

The doctor took the boy's hands and told him very simply what they feared. He looked at the man for a moment in dumb wonder, and sighed a long, tired sigh. Then he said, "Well, if I must, here goes--" and turned his face to the wall and closed his eyes without a tremor. And thus the Young Prince went home.

As romanitcized and melodramatized as this description of the near perfect reporter of a century ago is, it is still at the foundation of our image of what the ideal reporter should be today. He went to the core of everything.

And it is a crying shame that a man or woman like that really can't work for a corporatized "news" outlet today, with very, very few exceptions.

The good news is that The News isn't confined to those crabbed and increasingly irrelevant corporate outlets, and the number, scope and quality -- and audiences -- of alternatives keep growing.

As the corporate media is de-legitimized, opportunities for Young Princes (and Princesses!) outside the corporate media can only increase.

The question is whether the alternatives will ever be able to pay enough to hold on to their best reporters.

Stay tuned.

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