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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: More for power than puppies

by Philip Martin | May 30, 2023 at 3:53 a.m.

An odd thing happened around 5 p.m. last Thursday.

Karen got an email informing us the Iris DeMent concert scheduled for that evening at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts--a show we'd been looking forward to for some time--had been postponed.

And we were elated.

That elation was somewhat tempered. Postponing the concert so close to its startup time of 7 p.m. probably meant there was an issue with the artist. We hoped Iris DeMent is OK. We really do want to see her when the concert is rescheduled.

But we were really happy not to go, to have an evening where we could open a bottle of wine, watch the latest episode of "Yellowjackets," and hang out with our dogs.

Talking to friends, I don't think this is an unusual feeling. A lot of us have a little social anxiety; a lot of us enjoyed the enforced splendid isolation of the pandemic a little too much. For some, the joy of having plans canceled trumps the fear of missing out. There is a delicious freedom--a little jolt of dopamine--that attends the abrogation of obligation. On Thursday evening, I felt like I'd just got out of prison.

To be fair, we had had a busy week. We'd been at AMFA the night before for the Arkansas Cinema Society's conversation with Diane Ladd and Laura Dern. We'd spent some time at the post-event reception chatting with others.

The day before that, we'd gone to lunch with co-workers (something that hadn't happened since before the covid-19 pandemic). That evening, we'd had a meeting of our homeowners association (not as onerous as it sounds; it was fun) and Karen had gone to her monthly book club gathering.

For us, this passes as getting back to normal. I'm calling the pandemic over at our place.

We might be behind the curve; a lot of you probably thought the covid-19 pandemic was over a year or so ago. But we've been careful (and, so far as we know, neither Karen nor I have been infected with the virus).

On the other hand, neither of us saw much of a downside to hunkering down. We live in comfortable circumstances, and most of our work is solitary. I've always done the bulk of my writing at home anyway, and though I miss the thrum and throb of a busy newsroom, the truth is even before the pandemic newsrooms were becoming more sedate places. In the decade before covid, we probably averaged less than two fistfights per year.

Gone are the days when we'd whack each other with pica poles while swilling Old Crow from disposable paper cones. Today's journalists prefer Red Bull from a can, and their weapon of choice is Google Analytics.

Not that I'm nostalgic for the days when we dragooned 12-year-olds into covering high school football and invented entire communities for which we could spin mythologies. It's just different, with everybody mostly sober and on their medications. Not nearly as lively.

The rumor is they're going to have us come back into the office soon (if they can get the elevator fixed), which is a good thing, even if it will inevitably slow down my personal rate of content production. As much as reasonable people hate meetings, there are almost always matters that need to be discussed.

That's especially true with newspapers in the position we now find ourselves, where everyone with a cell phone and Internet access is a potential competitor. One of the problems newspapers have is that the sort of people who work for newspapers tend to privilege real journalism over scuttlebutt and wishful lies, and tend to believe that everybody just naturally thinks that way.

And if you're reading this in a newspaper (even if you're reading it on an iPad or a website), you probably feel the same way.

But most people don't think that way anymore, and a lot of us have become platform neutral, as we'll believe anything so long as we want to believe it, and it doesn't call for us to make any financial sacrifice or move off our cherished preconceptions.

If Twitter or Social Truth or tin-foil hatted charlatans cos-playing as serious thinkers make people feel good, they're going to get people's attention. Authentic journalism, morally and ethically, can't default to feeding its audience what it wants to hear (though plenty of "journalists" will try to do just that) so if newspapers are to compete with entertaining clowns and demagogues we have to offer something else of value.

And it's difficult for some in our industry to grasp the difficult truth that nobody looks to a newspaper to tell them what happened anymore; there are way too many quick triggers dealing in the obvious "what."

What newspapers need to do is allocate more resources to explaining the "why" and interrogating what we think we know. Our business, like any other business, has to adapt or go extinct. It is by and large prosecuted by people who are more concerned with doing their day-to-day jobs than thinking about what we have to do to turn the bureaucratic battleship around.

(Paul Greenberg and I once had a long conversation about the primacy of private life. We agreed that unless you're a monster, what's for supper ought to almost always be more important than what's going on with the debt ceiling.)

Which is why you need leadership and those meetings that no sane person really likes to figure out how to respond to new challenges and how to, as they say, work smarter and not harder. (Though, in this business, it is always possible to work a little harder.)

While in the short run it feels really good to do nothing--to have one's plans canceled--in the longer short run, if we're going to survive, we're going to have to apply ourselves to doing better, to showing up and engaging the universe in all its dangerous and fraught complexity. To making ourselves of use to those people who still read and wonder about how the world might be made incrementally kinder, fairer and more fit for the innocent and vulnerable.

It feels good to be excused from jury duty, a staff meeting, and sometimes even a night out with friends. Doing nothing feels good. But someone once said all it takes is for good people to do nothing. Recusing ourselves from the world's business leaves the world's business to those monsters who care more for power than puppies.

So, back to work.

Print Headline: More for power than puppies


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