Wednesday, May 27, 2009

one year later - still living the dream

There's a thing about writers. Novelists, screenwriters, poets, essayists, journalists. We have a thing. And I can't quote this as my own - I read it long ago, in Nora Ephron's novel "Heartburn." The thing is: everything is copy.

We writers pass you on the street as you're window shopping, picking up groceries, picking your kids up from school. We take notes. We watch your eyes. We look for the joy and the sadness. We jot it down in our mental notepads and when you close your eyes to sleep, we hang on to those little details. We put them all together in fictitious tales where you are the hero - or we remember the reality of them when we try to tell the stories of our world.

We try not to eavesdrop when we're sitting next to you in a café, but we can't help it. And we hear you divulge your greatest secrets, your vulnerabilities, your annoyances to the people you trust - or those you like just enough to tell them so. They make up the characters in our plays, the heroes in our comic books. That's what we writers do.

There's a thing about journalists. We don't just write up stories to fill pages. When this whole gig started, the founding fathers of our craft built a platform of truth and poignancy. Our job is not just to inform and to tell the truth - but to present the world as it is - as it matters.

And it all matters.

We tell the stories that can't be made up. From the long lines for corn dogs and the way a child's eyes light up the first time they see the county fair to the way to shelling of war torn villages in lands far, far away.

We sit back and we watch - and more often than not - we try to give a voice to those who may feel they have none. We try to keep them informed. We put it down on the page and we hope against hope that at the end of the day, we have done a good job at whatever story we have tried to tell.

This week marked my first year here at the Niles Daily Star. And one year later ... I try to think of everything that has changed my world since then.

The dream, originally, was as romantic as Cary Grant following after Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday." Wake up to the sound of the bustling city, the grumblings and the heavy trucks and the sirens and the heartbeat of the streets. Step out into a crisp morning and wonder, where are the sirens headed, what's the grumbling about, how's the heartbeat today as you pick up a cup of coffee and tuck the competitor's rag under your arm and head into the newsroom. And the sound of the rustling of the pages is like the best soundtrack.

Well, dreams change.

In a year, several presses have gone quiet. It's a wonder how many will ultimately survive a world that used to churn out so much newsprint that children's hands were stained with ink after an afternoon of "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" It's not that the world doesn't read anymore. It's just that they want to read everything in 140 characters or less.

And that matters.

When the gig started, there was no question of its relevance. And there was no need to be punchy. Martha Gellhorn wrote more than just reports on the shelling of Madrid in 1937. Without falling into bias like just about every other journalist that comes out of college with the dream of being the next coiffed morning talk show host, she wrote searing descriptions of the men and women and children who remained amidst the rubble. Who continued their walk to the market under a charcoal grey sky.

She wrote the world as it was. And it was enough. And it inspired the dream.

Some dreams change. Today, for instance, Cary Grant would likely be uploading a tweet on his Blackberry while chasing after Rosalind Russell through a newsroom with several empty desks and ergonomic office furniture and a bunch of writers who aren't sure what the dream is anymore.

When I lose the dream, I look back to Gellhorn and remember that original dream. And all of the others that I have stored up in a special file. The streets of Havana. The back alleys of Gaza. The cliffs of Santorini. The streets of New York City. Madrid. And everywhere in between.

More and more industry heavyweights are grasping at finding the new in the dream. They're busy, "reinventing" the magazine, trying to make their websites profitable, putting their presses to bed, trying to figure out how to make advertising lucrative again. And more and more journalists are getting worried that there may be no platform in the future for their words.

We writers have a thing. We watch you, we build on you, we tell your stories. The best we can. In one way or another. The relevance of that can only end in all of you. If you choose not to find any relevance in each other.

One year ago, I came in with a little dream. When I started, all I wanted to do was write for a newspaper. Check.

Thankfully - I'm reminded today of how much that dream has grown. I want Cary Grant. Rosalind Russell. Martha Gellhorn. Madrid.

I don't want to reinvent the art of journalism. I want to recreate it. Just as it was meant to be. Because even when the presses go quiet and shrink to the size of a microchip - the stories we tell are bigger and better than ever. They're you.

Everything is copy. It all matters.

Extra, extra, tweet it up - get thee to a blog - but most of all ... read all about it.

Jessica Sieff is a reporter for the Niles Daily Star. Reach her at

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