Considering the value of the unsanded edges

Posted on September 13, 2011 by Janet Coats

Like most of us, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about 9/11 as we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

And like most people who were working in newspaper newsrooms on that day, my recollections are tangled up in the process of putting out a newspaper. My memories of watching the towers fall are interspersed with memories of conversations about production, about color positions and how many pages we could take the paper up for the next day.

I’m not a sentimental person when it comes to hanging on to keepsakes, but I have all of those newspapers, and I pulled them out last week so that my daughter could take some to show her 7th grade social studies class. The pages looks so orderly, so elegant – they seem somehow out of touch from the reality of those days, which were so chaotic and jagged.

I was thinking about the orderliness of those pages, of the process of putting out a newspaper during those days, when I read Katharine Weymouth’s remarks about social media and 9/11.

Weymouth is the publisher of The Washington Post, the granddaughter of the legendary Katharine Graham. In a speech on Wednesday, Weymouth talked about the lack of social media 10 years ago and how that was a good thing – remarks that have echoed around journalism circles (through social media, of course).

What she said was this:

“…While we are all incredibly grateful for the ways in which technology has enhanced our lives, I think we are also grateful that we didn’t live through 9/11 with all of that technology.’’

She elaborated by adding that all of the social media channels – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – that allow people to share their experiences in real time would have been used to share truly horrific experiences on that September day. This, she thought, would have been a bad thing.

It certainly would have been a hard thing. And that speaks to my nagging discomfort in looking back at the elegance, at the orderliness of those newspaper pages we created 10 years ago.

As a newspaper editor, my job on 9/11 was to pull together a coherent narrative for that day’s paper. In doing that, I rejected hundreds of images and thousands of words. I made judgments about not just what was newsworthy, but about what my readers could take – what images would be too graphic, what words would be too harsh. I edited not just for meaning but for tone and sensibility.

From a craft perspective, I remain proud of the papers we produced during those days. We used all the tools at our disposal to the height of their power.

But the final product has the edges sanded off, and that event was about nothing so much as the edges. The coverage has a narrative flow -- coherence applied to unthinkable events, a coherence that in reality is lacking even 10 years on.

What it lacks is authenticity, in the form of the unfiltered voices of those who experienced the event close up. Their words are formed into a narrative, but it is a voiceless narrative, one lacking in point of view, in urgency, in the unsanded edges. It is the generic narrative of the newspaper.

Social media helps give us that unsanded view, and I think that having social media on that day would have been beneficial to our understanding of what happened in New York, in Washington and on those airplanes. It would be a painful understanding, no doubt, but it would have been closer to true.

Newspaper editors used to speak of beating the competition by “owning the story,’’ a phrase that came to drive me crazy. “We don’t own the story,’’ I used to say. “We are only the custodians of it.’’ It serves us well in an information age, in which social media has transcended the status of “digital tool’’ to become a utility as ubiquitous to us as power and water, to remember that every person owns her own story.  And now every person can tell it without looking for someone with a printing press.

Telling the story of life, whether the small dailyness of it or the enormity of something like 9/11, belongs to all of us. Journalism needs to be about the business of discovering ways to build relevance in an age when that unsanded experience can come to us through so many different channels. We need to celebrate that diversity of those voices, not bemoan our lost role as gatekeepers.

Journalism needs to be about the business of valuing and elevating the authentic voices of those who experience the news. We need to think about how we do that without sanding all those edges off.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.