Not this past week but the week before, The Ithaca Times, as well as every other news outlet in town, published the type of innocuous report straight from the clutter folder. Typically, as you can assume from any story that comes from this folder jammed with press releases which, this piece would serve only as the “web-only” fodder that drive our internet traffic.
This Ithaca Police Department release said that coming weekend, a “large load” would be coming through town, disrupting traffic along Route 13 for an undetermined period at an undetermined time, and that residents should watch their local media outlets for updates.
Doing our due diligence, we published the release, joining outlets like 14850.com, WHCU Radio, The Ithaca Voice, The Ithaca Journal, MyTwinTiers.com, Time Warner Cable News and, for those more worldly, The Cortland Standard. Even the Post-Standard, out of Syracuse, picked it up, localizing the phenomenon for all of us here in far-flung Tompkins County.
It was safe to say the event was well-covered. Yet, the piece written in less than 30 minute’s time went to number one as the most-read piece on our site, above such important topics like the West Dryden Pipeline, the potential impacts of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act… basically anything substantial we picked up. For a weekend, this turbine coming through town was poised to drive the news cycle.
Given any idea of how a newsroom works, this puzzled us a bit but, given the context it was understandable: the news is serious business, after all.
That weekend as the turbine came through town, we gave our reporters a day off and told them not to worry about this thing: after all, the other outlets in town were all over it, there was no angle we could possibly get from a General Electric shipment coming through town that could possibly differ from anyone else’s take: we shrugged it off, deferring a day’s boost in web traffic simply because, in the managing editor’s judgement, it wasn’t a big enough deal for us to cover.
The following week in print, we made fun of the phenomenon, how something so seemingly dull could have captured the attention of people so powerfully as it did in such an exciting town; we wondered how something moving at 2 to 4 miles per hour could possibly grip anyone’s attention for longer than a minute, if at all.
Then, we received a letter (published on the opposite page) that brought us back to earth.
The letter, written by a resident of the equally far-flung village of Spencer, chastised us for being so dismissive of this phenomenon, stating that not only did it show an elitist’s loftiness in perspective, but that it was a continuation of the further phenomenon of an elitist media, recently exposed with the underestimation of populist movements that had recently made themselves heard nationwide.
The turbine was not, as the editorial arm described it, “the dumbest thing we’ve ever covered.” We were dumb. Beneath our noses was a well-orchestrated operation of both teamwork and specialized skill, people extremely well-versed in a particular discipline none of us could ever have accomplished. It wasn’t grunt work, as this desk jockey wrote it off as: this is the type of ingenuity, effort and focus that made America great in the first place. And we let it slip right past us at 4 miles per hour.
What this exposed to us is simple. We come misinformed, without context, judging newsworthiness by what’s on a meeting’s agenda or what comes prescribed by our personal interests and passions. But in approaching the news this way, we don’t do what we’re meant to do: we shy away from serving the interests of our community, seeing the world from our reader’s eyes and bringing it back to a context they understand.
There is a practice out there called “parachute journalism,” in which journalists are thrown into a strange place to report on a story in which the reporter has little knowledge or experience. In our ten square miles, that strange place came to us in a convoy moving at the speed of cold molasses. And the pitch came and went without a swing.
A desk, they say, is a dangerous place to see the world. Limited staffing, piecing together special sections to drive advertising revenues and increased responsibility make it harder and harder to get outside (unless you’re talking about the walk between 109 N. Cayuga St. and Shortstop Deli).
So please, everyone, keep writing and continue to remind us that there is, in fact, a world out there.
You just might help us see it.