Essay

Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

(originally posted 3/16/15) The drunk police officer plowed his squad car into two motorcycles stopped at a red light. One rider was killed; two others were injured. A bungled and compromised investigation, continued bad behavior by the officer, and the slow wheels of justice kept this story at the top of the news for three years. At last, the officer was convicted of drunk driving, criminal recklessness, and reckless homicide.

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WRTV photo

On the day of the verdict, I turned to local television news for the story. I hoped for reporting and analysis that would help me understand the conviction in the context of the investigation and the trial. Instead, the station I chose led with — and heavily promoted — the emotional reaction of one dead rider’s mother as the verdict was read.

Then the newscast cut to an early weather report, and made no more mention of a top local story of this decade.

It’s not like most viewers didn’t know of this story, which was heavily reported over the three years between accident and conviction. But there was so much more to tell that evening: to recount the story’s timeline, to summarize the trial, to connect the dots that led to the guilty verdict, and to share the day’s courtroom drama. The mother’s tears were rightly part of that story. But they were not the story.

To be fair: a good television news program shows the news as much as it tells it. Without action video, all that’s left is talking heads. When I was a boy 40 years ago, local TV news was balding men in gray suits, sitting at a desk, droning on about city-council meetings. Yecch; who wants to watch that? Unless those council members were throwing punches at each other, there was nothing to see.

Also, many stories would benefit from explanation and analysis that television doesn’t have time for. Even if it did, television news is by its nature a short-attention-span theater. People watch the news while living their lives: getting ready for work, sending kids off to school, making dinner.

But even within these realities, an average TV newscast was once a good enough summary of a day’s events. I don’t find that to be true anymore. Instead, I find TV news trying to keep me on the hook by driving strong emotions.

I’m no industry insider, but here’s what I think is going on. Thanks to hundred-channel cable and the Internet, viewers have more choices and any single news outlet has to compete harder than ever for viewers. Younger viewers favor these other choices so overwhelmingly that the TV newscast viewer’s average age has risen sharply away from the younger viewers advertisers want. And the large corporations that own most television stations today have shareholders to please and/or enormous debt loads to shoulder, so they cut costs to the bone.

It’s driven TV news to rely increasingly on young, pretty, and presumably inexpensive talent, and to focus on dramatic stories they can tell easily and quickly. Bus crashes, police standoffs, drive-by shootings, train derailments, shackled felons shuffling into jail — these stories create compelling video and generate a dramatic, fast-paced news program.

I live in the 27th largest television market in the United States, which I would think would have a glut of experienced reporters to choose from. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve watched many middle-aged, experienced reporters disappear to be replaced by good-looking youngsters. They can’t possibly have their predecessors’ experience or contacts.

I don’t know whether it’s their thin experience or corporate edict, but their reporting often shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. A reporter stands live at the scene, even when the story happened eight hours ago and the place is empty and quiet now. She reports what she sees and perhaps what a police spokesman told her. She asks a man on the street for his opinion or gets a teary-eyed victim to emote for the camera, and then tosses back to the anchor. I come away knowing only that the thing happened and someone was upset about it.

And then there are the fear-inducing health and safety stories and the ambush-style “tough questions” that masquerade as investigative journalism. It’s all wrapped in a shiny package of needless, endless swoosh sounds and “Breaking News” banners.

Well, I’m repelled by it all. The 6:00 news used to be appointment television for me. But over the past ten years or so I’ve watched less and less of it. I catch it when I happen to, and when the weather is bad.

I’m not suggesting that local TV news return to 40 years ago with the middle-aged men and the droning. The things I mentioned above are not all inherently a problem. The over-reliance on them is.

So TV news: To win me back, dig deeper into your stories and tell them straight up, without only playing on my emotions. And when a mother cries as her son’s killer is convicted, go ahead and show her tears. Just wrap them in the bigger story that shows those tears’ context.

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Essay

Safety and diversity

When I lived in Indianapolis I felt safe. I lived in a part of town that had little or no crime. I was never the victim of a crime and I was never under threat. Indianapolis has bad neighborhoods; the church I attend is in one of them. I just stayed out of there at night and all was well.

I moved to Zionsville, an Indianapolis suburb, a couple years ago. I feel ultra safe here.

Around Zionsville

I think now that I merely didn’t feel unsafe when I lived in Indianapolis. I recently started working in Downtown Indianapolis, a place I used to visit frequently when I lived in the city. As I walk those streets now I realize I’m always lightly vigilant, always generally aware of my surroundings.

Because my guard is completely down in Zionsville, I can see now that I was always this watchful when I lived in Indianapolis.

Parked by the blue door

I think I feel safe enough to be this relaxed and trusting because in Zionsville, everyone looks and behaves like me, or like someone obviously in a higher station in life than me. In Indianapolis, I encountered people of many backgrounds, people who didn’t look like me.

I don’t like to think of myself as prejudiced, but perhaps I am in this way. If nothing else, living in Zionsville has certainly taught me that it’s easy to feel safe in a homogeneous community.

Down a Zionsville sidewalk

Yet I miss the diversity of Indianapolis. When I moved there in 1994, my first wife and I chose a home in an area of mixed race so we and our children would have friends of many colors and backgrounds. It worked!

Yet when we went out on the town — infrequently, as our children kept us busy — we never felt a part of a community. We were just two people out among strangers. I used to think that was largely on me, as I’m a keep-to-myself introvert. But now I’m not so sure.

Around Zionsville

When my current wife and I go out in Zionsville, there’s a feeling that we’re among our people. We have random conversations with strangers. My wife always starts them (see above, re: keep-to-myself introvert), but I always participate in them. Heartily.

In Zionsville when I see someone who is not white or is not wearing clothes that suggest at least an upper-middle-class background, I immediately assume they’re not from here. And then I’m startled by my own prejudice.

This is just an experience report. I can’t draw any hard conclusions. But I wonder: does choosing diversity lead to a reduced feeling of safety, and does choosing homogeneity lead to an increased feeling of safety? Am I objectively safer in Zionsville than in even my nearly-no-crime neighborhood in Indianapolis? I’m not sure.

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Essay

The new social order my son and his generation will build

Depending on where you draw the generational line, this Sunday my son will join one of the first, if not the first, college graduating classes of Generation Z.

If you follow the generational theories of William Strauss and Neil Howe, we live in a four-generation cycle that builds and then destroys the social order. A first generation builds a social order, in which institutions and communities are strong. The subsequent three generations feel constrained and limited by that social order, so they weaken and even attack the institutions, and seek autonomy and individualism. Eventually a historic crisis finishes that job and the next generation quietly builds a new social order.

You can see this in the Silent Generation, which began to come of age as World War II ended. They rebuilt American society, perhaps without intending to. They simply noted the mess the world was in as they grew up during the Great Depression and World War II and, in response, set about creating highly stable, even cautious lives for themselves. They went to work and worked hard. They were loyal employees and climbed the ladder. This helped create the most prosperous time our nation has ever known.

And you see it in the Baby Boomers, which began to come of age in the mid-1960s. They rebelled, and hard, against the conformist lives their parents had lived.

Each generation responds in predictable ways, say Strauss and Howe, to the generations that precede them. In and through every fourth generation there is a historic crisis that finally destroys the social order. The next generation responds by quietly building a new one.

The Silent Generation was followed by the Baby Boomers, which was followed by Generation X, which is followed by the Millennials, which is followed by Generation Z. One, two, three, four, …and one again.

In my Generation X lifetime I watched the Silent Generation’s social order weaken and fail. I’ve quietly endured the destruction of useful institutions, such as the nuclear family and a large and strong middle class. I’ve cheered as harmful institutions have given way, leading to such things as improved equality for women and the ending of bans on interracial relationships.

This period in which we now live, which I think began with 9/11, continued through the great recession of 2008, and is very likely ending with an unconventional and destructive President, is the historic crisis to which my son’s generation will respond. Or at least I hope it is; I’d hate for it to be capped by a major war, as it was the last time.

Damion, I look forward to the new social order you and your generation will build. I’ll bet you won’t even look at what you’re doing that way. You’ll just say you’re quietly living your lives.

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Essay, Personal, Stories Told

The secret to adulting is routines and systems

My older son Damion graduates from college on Sunday. I’m sad to admit that I’m primarily relieved that I no longer have to write big tuition checks. These college years have been financially stressful! One graduate down, two more to go (in 2021 and 2022).

Still, I’m happy for my son, and deeply pleased with his accomplishment. I might even shed a tear on graduation day.

He made it through in four years with relatively light student-loan debt, no small feat these days. He hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he’s working on it. It will come. And then his adult life begins.

I remember when mine began — and how challenging I found the adjustment. I think many of us experience this. I’d run out of things to graduate from and had to find my way. It was bewildering.

So I aped what I saw my parents do: make routines and systems out of everything I could.

Leaving for work, 1989

I organized my life around my job. It’s what my dad always did. He worked from 7 to 3:30 in the factory, and by God he made sure he was at work not just on time but early and ready to work hard. I didn’t have to be to work until 8, so I adjusted my timing accordingly, but otherwise I followed his pattern. I went to bed every night by 11 and rose at 6. I showered and dressed, and then went into the kitchen where I turned on the radio and made eggs and toast. I read the newspaper over breakfast until it was time to go. I got to my desk by 7:45 most days. When I got home, I made a simple dinner and watched the nightly news. I did simple chores around the house or ran routine errands, and when that was done I watched TV until bedtime.

I set aside Thursday evening to go to the laundromat and afterward iron my dress shirts, and Monday evening to shop for groceries and supplies.

I adapted my mom’s system for not running out of items at home. Every week I put a fresh sticky note on a kitchen cabinet and another on the bathroom medicine chest. As I got close to running out of items I’d write them down on the nearest sticky note. Then on shopping day I’d transfer those items to my shopping list and set out fresh sticky notes. For critical items like toilet paper I always kept a spare in the closet. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use one of my spares it went onto the nearest sticky note so I could get a new spare on my next shopping trip.

I paid my bills on Saturday morning. As they came in the mail I’d stack them on a table next to my desk. On Saturday I’d figure out which ones were due soonest and pay the ones I had money for. The rest went back onto the stack. I didn’t make very much money. but there was enough to pay for everything if I timed it all right.

Those were my normal routines and systems, but I could shift them around when adventure came my way. For a while I had a Thursday-night airshift at my alma mater’s radio station. Sometimes a friend would call and want to go get a beer. Every now and again I had to work late. Sometimes I went away for the weekend. I kept enough of everything on hand so that if I needed to, I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. My Saturday bill-paying routine could always be done the preceding Friday over breakfast.

My routines and systems provided structure and resiliency to my life. I always had clean clothes, so I never had to worry about what I was going to wear to work. I always had food in the house, so I never had to spend big money on a meal out (unless I wanted to) or go hungry. My bills were always paid, so nothing ever went past due and collection agencies never called.

My routines and systems let me live a pretty good life. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.

Easy like a Sunday morning, 1989

I still keep these routines and systems, except today shopping is Sunday after church and laundry is Saturday morning. I still pay bills on Saturday, although there’s enough money now I just pay every bill every week. I still have enough slack in the plan that I can move things around a day or two without running out of underwear or finding nothing in the house for breakfast.

I suppose I come from a family that naturally builds routines and systems. I know not all people do. But I know everybody can build habits, like brushing your teeth. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.

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Essay, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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Essay

Stuck on Facebook

I know someone who used to not only work at Facebook, but was in a position where she regularly spoke with founder Mark Zuckerberg. She frequently posted images and stories from within Facebook’s offices. I saw an energizing place to work and a company on a positive mission.

Being on Facebook was fun in those days. It’s not anymore, except for rare occasions when it is. As I’ve written before (here) this is like the abusive spouse who’s nice to you just often enough that you think maybe it’ll be different now and you stay.

Amid the ever growing negative news about Facebook — how they gather and sell information about you, their monopolistic practices — I think they’ve lost their way, if indeed they ever had it. I want to walk away. I don’t want to support them anymore.

Sites that drove traffic to my blog the week of Jan. 28 – notice what is #2

Yet I stay, because at the moment it is the best platform available to me for promoting not only this blog, but also the Michigan Road Historic Byway and also my church. I post on behalf of all three on Facebook and it drives more engagement and traffic than anything else I do. It’s not a life-changing amount, but without it my stats would be far, far lower.

I’m also over Instagram, because it’s a Facebook company and because literally every third post is an ad now. I’m especially frustrated with that because Facebook knows my search history and has figured out I’m looking for comfortable shoes thanks to my bum left foot, and keeps showing me lovely orthotically correct shoes and I keep clicking through because foot pain sucks. I hate it that I’m falling for this.

But I promote the Michigan Road Historic Byway there, and new posts there automatically post on Facebook too. This drives more engagement with our byway than anything else we’ve tried. It’s not an overwhelming amount, but we hate to leave it behind.

I seldom look at what my “Facebook friends” are up to anymore. I’ve hidden all the friends who post mostly political stuff, even when I agree with their politics. I’ve also hidden the friends who post mostly memes and share articles. That leaves little to see.

But in the last couple years Facebook’s groups have become a welcome replacement for the forums I used to frequent, about the kinds of arcane and esoteric topics I enjoy — old roads, neon signs, obscure cameras, and more. The Indiana Transportation History group is flat out amazing for the information its founder unearths in his research. I don’t want to leave that behind.

I keep thinking I ought to quit it all. But I hold my nose and stay.

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