This essay first appeared in the Adirondack Almanack. Join the conversation there by clicking here.
So here’s the sad truth about my life as a journalist working in the Adirondacks. I wake up pretty much every day here in Saranac Lake wanting you – scratch that, needing you – to do three contradictory things at once. First, I need you to care about what I do. Whether I’m reporting on environmental issues, paddling down a river, or pulling together a year-long investigative series about America’s vast prison complex, I need you to share my conviction that these things matter. In a world of Kardashians, infotainment and blink-and-you-missed it Twitter feeds, those of you who filter past this first step are already the rarest, purest gold.
The second thing I need you to do is put up with the fact that it’s part of my job to be kind of a jerk. Not always, and not unnecessarily, at least I hope. But kind of a lot of the time, it’s important for me to be pretty unlikable. Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor at the Washington Post, was asked once about the backlash he faced for his reporters’ work on Watergate. He said that their job wasn’t to be liked, but to scrap and dig and prod until they found the truth. I’m not in Bradlee’s league, obviously. I’m a small town reporter in rural Upstate New York.
But I still have to ask the uncomfortable questions. I lift the tails of the sacred cows. I do unsociable things like trying to get my neighbors to talk about whether or not a big prison-industrial complex in the Adirondacks is really what the Park was supposed to be about, and whether those correctional facilities really did for the Upstate economy what people hoped and expected them to do. That kind of behavior doesn’t get you invited to a lot of dinner parties, let me tell you.
As if that weren’t already enough to ask of people, it’s also a growing part of my job to find new, different and creative ways to pass the hat. And yes, this is the third thing I need from you: dollars. Because the truth is the business of journalism is more or less broken. With newspapers going out of business and TV stations operating on shoe-string budgets, the traditional methods for supporting a cantankerous (but hopefully useful ) soul like myself just don’t exist anymore.
Which isn’t a terrible thing. It never made a whole lot of sense to those of us in my line of work that reporters charged with speaking truth to power got their paychecks because McDonald’s or Wal-Mart bought up big blocks of commercial time. It’s a strange truth that the golden age of American journalism was bankrolled by used car ads, grocery store inserts and classifieds. Plenty of reporters – myself included – hated the fact that journalism was, at the end of the day, big business.
For better or worse, the internet changed all that. The current age of “new media” journalism might best be described as Creative Freefall. In theory, websites like this one, the Adirondack Almanack, give new opportunity to more journalists, writers, and thinkers to share their views, swap good, accurate information, and speak fearless truths about our world. Also in theory, the web gives you – the reader, or God forbid, the “consumer” – the opportunity to toss a few bucks into the kitty to support the kind of ethical storytelling and reporting, that you find meaningful.
Honestly, I remain agnostic about whether this new “journalism ecology” will work. Let me be clear: I dearly want it to work. I desperately want sites like the Almanack to be sustainable. And I want risk-taking efforts like NCPR’s Prison Time Media Project, to find an audience, and then find enough worthy souls within that audience who are willing to chip in a few bucks to make this kind of reporting possible. If it does work, then this very quickly becomes a new golden age, a better golden age. You’ll hear stories like you’ve never heard before. Our democracy will be flooded with fact-poetry, reported song and heart-essays. There will be viral networks of truth and deep conversation that rival and maybe eclipse the corporate-driven engines of blather and spin and muddle.
And that, damn it, is a dinner party that I really want to be invited to. I want to be part of that club. The cool thing, furthermore, is that these questions aren’t abstractions. You don’t have to be in Manhattan or LA to be in at the ground floor of this beta-test of a new American conversation. This isn’t a set of theories being quibbled over by academics (or PR firms) somewhere else. This is being live-tested right now, right here in the Adirondacks.
Our small journalism collective known as North Country Public Radio has launched a trial balloon in the form of a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for our absurdly ambitious Prison Time project. Let me pause to say a few words about the project. A little over a year ago, I sat down with Martha Swan – head of John Brown Lives – over a bottle of wine and talked about the need for a more real, substantive conversation about North Country prisons. We blue-skied a lot of great ideas, both for journalism and other forms of public discussion. (JBL will go public with more of their program later in the year.)
Here’s the thing. When I went to North Country Public Radio and proposed the idea, I kind of expected to be laughed out of the room. Because that’s what happens in modern American journalism when you propose spending a year on a single, investigative project – especially a project as somber and tough as prisons. When you tell your editors that you want to spend time digging around in old archives, doing the kind of deep interviews and long-form writing that guys like IF Stone and Adam Hochschild pioneered? In the age of Twitter and blogs, that stuff just feels impossible.
But NCPR, bless their courageous hearts, said yes. They even suggested that we go bigger, hiring Natasha Haverty, a reporter and researcher familiar with prison issues, to help realize the vision. Only there was a catch. (There’s always a catch, right?) The deal was that Tasha and I would have to help with the fundraising, with the outreach, with the effort to build a new, grassroots pool of support for the series. In a way we would be doing two ambitious things at once, creating a powerful series of documentary-quality news stories, and pioneering a new, more grounded way of paying for this kind of story-telling.
If this works – if Prison Time attracts real grassroots support, while also expanding the dialogue about an important issue – my conviction is that this will very quickly become the new normal. Next you’ll see a year-long deep-root series on ethical farming or on invasive species or on rural feminism or God knows what. But something cool. Something tangible and deep. But only if the trial balloon soars. Only if enough people (yes, like you) give it a little lift. I know that’s asking a lot. I’ve already asked you to give a damn about our old-fashioned style of journalism and that mostly cleared the room. Then I asked you to tolerate what by any definition are bad manners.
Now? I want you to shell out $1 or $10 to keep the ecology going. And yes, I’m warning you in advance that if this works, more people – maybe including the Almanack itself – will be coming back to you asking you to do it again. So with all our cards on the table, here goes. Click and chip in, or click away. I will be fascinated to see which direction people choose to take us.