Have I Seen You Here Before?

I was surprised earlier today when I checked the backend of this blog and saw today’s traffic is a new record — and it was just mid-day. This, no doubt, comes because my friends Rod Dreher and Kara Tippetts both happened to link to something I wrote yesterday about both of them. And for that I’m grateful.

So I thought it a good time to introduce myself, so to speak, with some folks who perhaps are coming here for the first time or who haven’t read anything of mine. Piddle around this site long enough and you’ll get an idea of who I am. But another writer at The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead, wrote something today that reveals her own interests as well as my own.

Journalists writing and living in community recognize their customers. They develop relationships with them, and learn to seek the good of those communities. Leibovich said that any reporter or politician who wants to come to D.C. should first develop this rich background—and added that they (politicians especially) should return to their homeland, and not remain in the noxious D.C. atmosphere.

I’ve never worked in D.C., but I have been a community journalist. What’s ironic is my own thinking on the importance of local communities and what are known as “mediating institutions” (local schools, churches, civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and the like) has mostly been formed after my time as a community journalist, while working at Summit Ministries.  But from a journalist’s view, I think Olmstead is exactly right. It’s one thing to write a piece — blistering or cordial — and never know how those reading it receive it; this largely is what I do now in my day job and the bit of freelancing I do. It’s another thing entirely to write something one day, then go out and see the faces of folks you’re writing about at the grocery store on the way home. Or to talk with the flesh-and-blood people who stand to lose or gain based on the words you’ve put to paper. It’s both the blessing and the curse of community journalism. So many hours of my life in Dayton, Tennessee, were spent talking to neighborly strangers at the Wal-Mart while picking something up for dinner. They knew me and my work, though I didn’t know them.

But this is the rub of community in general, right? The focused nature of small communities means we see more immediately the effects of our actions, not just in journalism. The key thing, as Olmstead pointed out, is learning to seek the good of these communities. Whether we’re motivated by the thought of changing a whole country  — which I’m sure is the motivation of many in D.C. — or we have prioritized our local communities, knowing (in one sense or another) something about the people we’re hoping to affect is key. It’s the cultivation of relationships that leads to a genuine desire to “seek  the good of those communities.” I think Olmstead’s point is that this is a virtue deserving practice and habit formation at a closer-knit level before we go off to politically and culturally charged locales where the effects of our work aren’t always as accessible. And it is. One of the most challenging stories I had to edit — I purposely assigned it to another reporter — was of an arson investigation involving a friend from our church fellowship group. She and her messy divorce — and the two very young children involved — were the focus of the arson investigation that was absolutely newsworthy. Though I didn’t report and write the story, I signed off on it when deadline came ’round. And I was the one who called her before the paper hit doorsteps the next morning to give her a heads up. And I talked with her broken-hearted and protective father when he came in the next day to let us know what he thought. I knew the story would make everything about the divorce worse — especially for the kids — but the merits of the job required us to run the story and live in the uncomfortable messiness that resulted. Figuring out how to live in that is often just as or more important than the deed that got you there in the first place.

Crunchy ConsMany journalists brag about becoming callous to certain nasty bits of life, and to a degree I understand why that’s necessary. But I always took it as a good sign when I could still grasp the pain or joy that would result from the work we did. To lose that is to no longer be in touch with our customers or our communities. And when we lose touch with our communities, we lose the ability to know the good of the community and seek it. This is not exclusive to journalism, but I do think journalism clearly illustrates the potentials and pitfalls of meaningfully living and working in a community.

Because my friend Rod is a kind person (and it sounded like his wife, Julie, was trying to clear out some closet space; and she’s really kind too), on my trip this week he also gave me a copy of an earlier book of his: Crunchy Cons. As I began reading it today, I came upon this thought from Russell Kirk, given while addressing his readers near the end of his life, and it seems to fit here:

What can you do, young men and women of the rising generation of the 1990s, to raise up the human condition to a level less unworthy of what Pico della Mirandola called ‘the dignity of man’? Why, begin by brightening the corner where you are; by improving one human unit, yourself, and by helping your neighbor.


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