The demise of local journalism

Early this month I was speaker at the monthly Seabury Men’s Breakfast, and offered my pessimistic view of the decline if not demise of local journalism, and the impact on local government and democracy.
It drew a record attendance among my contemporaries here, and a video of the talk has been unusually well-received. It may be of some interest to the younger of those who follow me, so I’ve posted the text ==>here, and the video (22 minutes plus another 20 minutes of Q&A) is available at YouTube, ==>here.


Back to the editorial page

An insanely huge honorarium for a 2018 Joe Biden speech at a Connecticut college was a back-of-the-paper item last week in both the Hartford Courant and the Connecticut Post. Both newspapers missed what I thought the key element: Had someone found a way to make a tax-deductible campaign contribution?
Two decades ago, with a bully pulpit of my own and the resources that went with it, I’d have happily chased it down myself. Instead, I wrote to a couple of next-generation journalistic pals suggesting they take a closer look.
Hearing nothing, I grew impatient, and decided to get the idea out for everyone to think about. My letter to the editor (the shortest thing I’ve ever had on that page!) is in the July 16 Courant. Read it ==>>here:


Cambodian memories

My first few days in Phnom Penh in 1966 were stunningly memorable, not least for my Lowestoft Chronicle [postage stamp] Issue 33 March 2018middle-of-the-night initial encounter with Norodom Sihanouk, the monarch/president. It was also my first trip with the cyclopousse (pedicab) driver who would somehow always be available when I wanted to go somewhere — and who would ultimately confess that he reported on my travels to the police once a week.

I departed from my usual fiction routine to write a memoir slice that’s published today in the online literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle.  Read it in the online magazine by clicking ==>here — or (easier) click ==>right here at my blog


The uses of grammar

I this month read – and happily clipped – a New Yorker article explaining and defending, among other niceties of punctuation, the magazine’s insistence on the “serial” comma (following the last and of a series).

A kindred soul! I’ve seen recently too many defenses of sloppy editing, punctuation and word choice. In an era of compressed texts and tweets, it is argued, the finer points of communication are for old fuddy-duddies; the younger generation intuits fine distinctions from context.

Nonsense. Language must be rigorously used to be precisely understood, whether in novels or short stories or news articles.

I remember fondly learning the difference between rebut and refute from a grizzled copy editor at The Hartford Times, a WWII veteran who lacked my B.A. but was a better wordsmith. To be an objective journalist, he explained, I shouldn’t imply who might have won an argument: I could report that A rebuttedcountered – B’s argument, but not that A had refuteddisproven – it.

Alas, such niceties fade. nowadays agrees that refute means “to prove to be false or erroneous,” but allows rebut to mean not only “to oppose by contrary proof,” but also (as a third choice) “to refute by evidence or argument.”  !!!  Another loss of verbal precision, and with it the ability to guard the journalist’s impartiality.

My copy editor mentor taught me not to use other verbs. A shouldn’t point out B’s error, for instance: That implies there’s something there to be pointed out; use claim or charge. Similarly don’t use call attention to. You can probably think of other examples yourself.

Sadly, newspapers can’t afford to hire as many copy editors as I remember. Even the New York Times is eliminating one of six routine stops on a typical article’s review before publication. We can expect to see more imprecise or misleading phrasing in print — and even more online, where precision too succumbs to haste.

And don’t get me started on the disappearing subjunctive mood, to express doubt, conditionality or improbability. In the right context, I think anyone can still understand the difference between “Tom may have broken Joe’s jaw; they headed to the ER” and “Tom might have broken Joe’s jaw had not Charlie intervened.” But there are far more instances where was/were, may/might, can/could, will/would express subtleties that are too often lost by a generation that didn’t spend much school time studying grammar or parsing sentences.

Going back to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford or Harvard comma: The New York Times reported this month on a labor case that turned on the ambiguity of a Maine state law that failed to use a final comma. Read it here.

The New Yorker’s Daniel Wenger, the kindred soul I mentioned initially, offers several amusing illustrations of ambiguity when the serial comma is omitted. Among them, my favorite: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Texters and tweeters, en garde! You may be missing something, or failing to convey your full meaning. Let’s hear it for grammar, punctuation and punctilious use of words.