Volume 16, Issue 24 - June 12 - June 18, 2008

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Survival of the Fittest

When the big ponds dry up, small ones make good fishing — and reading

Would you be the big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?

Like reporter George Willard of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, most of those who pour words into the machinery we call the press (as in Bay Weekly) are young and full of pee and vinegar. Probably idealists about long-range career thinking, and, also like George Willard, impatient to swim in the big pond — preferably as the big fish in that big pond.

Whoa, slow down!. That’s the advice of this writer who first wrote words for the machinery we call the press in 1946 and who this week observes his 15th year with Bay Weekly. Keep a tight grasp on those ambitions, but temper them. Don’t try to take giant steps up the ladder of success until you have learned what the other end of that ladder is propped up against.

Above all don’t lose either drive or enthusiasm, the basic two prerequisites of being any fish in any pond of the waters of what many call journalism — though most of those doing the swimming would prefer a more confined term: Newspapering.

We ply our trade in the new and enlarged offices in Annapolis, from our homes or anyplace a laptop computer can rest. If we were to be counted — writers, columnists, editors and those putting all those 100,000 or more weekly words in their proper place on paper — we might number a couple of dozen.

We’re all average citizens like you. We differ only in that instead of making and selling things, running an office staff, being a clerk, parking cars or serving in government at any level and such, we’re fascinated by words, happenings and thoughts. We’re nosey, gossipers of sorts, chroniclers of what was, is and will happen via the printed word. Print. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Once written, the printed word lives on and on.

It’s not easy to describe a writer’s satisfaction when, many years after a story is written and printed, a reader opens the pages of a scrapbook, takes a folded piece of paper from the billfold or — after that reader passes on — heirs come across in a shoe box in the attic that long-ago written story. The printed word lives on; once spoken, the broadcast word is gone.

Will electronic words have that longevity? Today, they’re pushing to the front. But whether they’ll endure is a story still to be written.

Smaller Is Fitter

This is a perilous time for all us writers on paper. In this computer age, the necessary time consumed by writing, editing, printing and delivering classifies us as snails. The web, e-mail, blogs, radio and TV bring the news faster than a gazelle. They paint the big picture quickly, but briefly.

It’s a perilous time, too, for our readers. Big newspaper conglomerates have become too bulky and unwieldy to allot space for stories about friends and neighbors. Due to the sliding economics of publishing, they’re cutting space to survive — and cutting local news. Yet that’s what readers buy newspapers for. So why are newspapers losing readership? If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

Bottom line: Big is not always better. The bigger daily publications might possibly have learned this too late. Unless you’re thinking small — as in small dailies and weeklies — this certainly is not the best of times to enter the field of newspapering. Or to read newspapers.

After 64 years in the trade, I have worked on the nation’s bigger dailies and smaller weeklies to put beans on the table. For all those years, I’ve also enjoyed the satisfaction of putting words on paper for people to read. Since writing columns for the Baltimore Sunpapers for 40 years, I have toiled for smaller newspapers, a small fish in small ponds. But unlike Sherwood Anderson’s George Willard, I don’t hanker to climb aboard and head for the big pond when I hear the whistle of the train.

For 15 years now, I have enjoyed the privilege of occupying this space in this small newspaper in this small but growing city, doing what people who write do. Know what? There is as much satisfaction writing about, say, a Southern Maryland farmer’s self-published book on his World War II days as a bomber pilot over Europe as there would have been in telling the world about D.H. Lawrence’s ‘new’ book Sons and Lovers. The only difference is the number of readers; the words would be the same.

Methinks, and sadly so, the curtain of the era of viable big newspapers is dropping. The media have changed in focus, interest and delivery.

Biting Close to Home

So where does that leave readers like ours — insistent for news about their neighbors and friends as they are about Britney’s latest capers or where Condi Rice is camping these days?

Readers can get that anywhere — radio, television, the Internet. But not the news of where the fish are biting close to home, plans for that old eyesore building on the edge of the village or what local park plans a program the kids will enjoy over the weekend. That’s news, too — and keep in mind it’s a proven news formula. There are no dull stories; just dull writers. Many a cub reporter has learned this the hard way.

My 15 years here and in other outlets since retirement from the Evening Sun have been more than satisfying: I am blessed with supportive readers and editors who appreciate what news is all about. They have learned that news isn’t confined to murder, rape, war or what Madonna wears. It’s about words that interest and inform local readers.

When I entered this business eons ago, it was said that small newspapers were not about who in town did what, but about who got caught. I disagree. News really is who did what — as well as why, when and how. Fulfilling that need will remain the lifeblood of newspapering.

I pledge my continued support to that basic principle of news and comment as long as these fingers can continue punching keys.

’Tis said in business that everything is location, location, location. In the newspaper business it’s local, local, local. Thanks for your support. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2008 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.