I’m going to tell you a quick story about my friend, Charlotte Observer columnist and Nieman Fellow Tommy Tomlinson. I’m not going to tell you about all the awards he won or the time he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist or how many people live for his column.
No, instead, quickly, I’m going to tell you about a time when we worked together in the Rock Hill Bureau of the Charlotte Observer. We were called the “York Observer,” and the idea was that we were going to write about three small counties in South Carolina -- York, Lancaster and Chester Counties, affectionally known as the YLC -- like they were New York City. We would cover high school sports like they were the Alabama football. We would cover softball games and church group meetings and garage sales and everything in between. It was a noble experiment. And for a 22-year-old sportswriter -- which is what I was at the time -- it was maddening. There’s something about being 22 that makes you believe you deserve something bigger.
Tommy is only a couple of years older than I am, and his job was to cover Lancaster (pronounced LAN-cas-tur) -- best known, to me at least, childhood home of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs who sang the song “Stay,” the shortest song to ever reach No. 1 on the charts. When you drove out of Lancaster, there was a sign that read “Wish you could have stayed ... just a little bit longer.” Tommy had a little office there, and I mean little.
So here’s the story: That year, the two biggest high schools in town -- Rock Hill and Northwestern -- both had remarkable football teams. They were both undefeated, they were probably the two best teams in the state, and so when they played the last game of the season it was, for the York Observer, the biggest thing in the history of the world. I’m not entirely certain of this, but I’m pretty sure that I never wrote more leading into a sporting event than I wrote that week.
That Thursday, I was spent. We all were spent. So, the editors wanted to get something fresh, so they called Tommy in Lancaster (he had just started) and they asked him to write something about the game.
Here’s what he did: He cold-called a bunch of people in town to ask them what they thought about the game coming up. And, in an afternoon, he weaved together the best story of the week, one that really got to the heart of a small town and a big football game. I remember one woman said she couldn’t watch the game because she would be washing her underwear.
Tommy is my newspaper barometer. Here he is on newspapers and stories:
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When I think about newspapers dying I think about Butterfly McQueen and the Board of Zoning Appeals. This probably requires an explanation.
The Board of Zoning Appeals was part of my beat covering local government for the Augusta Chronicle (the morning paper) and Herald (the afternoon paper) at my first newspaper job in Augusta, Ga.* When the full Zoning Commission made a ruling that one of the parties involved didn’t agree with, it went to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Most of the disputes were about things like somebody’s maple tree dropping leaves in the neighbor’s yard, or somebody building a shed too close to the property line. Like the People’s Court, but less interesting. They met in a room about the size of a McDonald’s restroom. I was always the only reporter there.
*True Pozheads will know that Joe also worked in Augusta. I was there first, then got hired in Charlotte, where Joe and I worked together and became great friends; then he went on to Augusta. We share a love for Squeaky’s Tip Top and horrific tales of playing on media day at Augusta National. I hit balls so far in the woods it will take archaeologists to find them.
So I show up one day and the clerk tells me this is going to be a great meeting, probably the best Board of Zoning Appeals meeting ever, because Butterfly McQueen was coming. If that name doesn’t ring a bell: Butterfly McQueen played Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies – that’s Butterfly McQueen. She was born in 1911. When I saw her it was probably 1987 or ’88 and she was living in Augusta. I think a couple of folks at the Board of Zoning Appeals wanted her autograph. But not after they saw her. She was frail and tired and sad.
It turned out, if I’m remembering right, that she had put a trailer in her backyard – maybe a relative was living there – and some of the neighbors had complained. Both sides told their version of the story. The Board of Zoning Appeals ruled that she had to get a special permit. You could tell from the look in her eyes that getting a special permit would take an effort she wasn’t capable of. She slowly rose and thanked the Board of Zoning Appeals for their consideration. Once a famous actress in one of the greatest movies of all time. Now a broken-down old woman shuffling out the door.
I don’t remember the story I wrote. I wasn’t very good then so the story probably wasn’t either. But I did do something – I wrote a story – and that’s the point I want to make about dying newspapers.
It is absolutely true that when newspapers go, we the people will go without crucial information in our lives. A million people are willing to fact-check Obama or break down the NFL draft. Not many people are willing to cover the zoning board, week after tedious week, piecing together tidbits into something bigger. Corrupt local politicians, crooked cops, shady developers, scam artists: They can’t wait for newspapers to die. No one else will watch them as hard and for as long as newspapers did.
But that’s not the worst part.
The worst part is that we’ll lose so many stories. Not analysis, not commentary, but real stories from the little corners of our lives. Bloggers and podcasters and folks with Flip cameras will tell some of those stories, and some of them will be better than the best newspaper work. Some of them will be done by former newspaper people. If it comes to that, I hope I’m one of them.
But there aren’t nearly as many people who make a living telling stories as there were a few years ago, and it’s obvious that there will be even fewer. Next week, next month, next year, there won’t be as many people out hunting for those stories, doing the fieldwork, talking to people, digging dry hole after dry hole, searching for paydirt.
Newspapering is not strenuous work compared to most other jobs. Once you learn a few moves, it’s not that hard to tell a good story. The hard part is finding one worth telling – not just a funny anecdote or a slice of melodrama, but a story that’s deep and broad and richly human, one that helps us make sense of our world.
We newspaper people screw up a lot – we miss things, we get things wrong, and Lord knows we have been slow to understand the revolution in our very own business. But one thing we can do is tell a true story. I suspect that will turn out to be a rarer skill than most people think.
I’m not sure how many people read that Butterfly McQueen story, or remember it. Some, I hope. And now you. It was just a little thing I came across one day, working for the newspaper.