Lessons For The Old And New Media

LA MESA – Sixty-seven year old Cheryl Roberts wanted everyone to know about what she considered an amazing story. Her 93-year-old parents were approaching their 75th wedding anniversary.

It didn’t seem like the kind of story the big newspaper would do on just one local couple so she turned to this new Internet thing to see if she could find a smaller publication that might take note.

She typed something like “La Mesa newspaper’’ into the computer and Google delivered her “La Mesa Today.’’

It sounded like a newspaper. She found an e-mail address and sent off a message.

What happened next is a touching little lesson in the difference between the new and old media, a sweet reminder for those of us who will have lived the bridge between Gutenberg and the Jetsons in this unfolding information revolution.

Her note was a familiar sort to anyone who had ever worked at a small daily or weekly newspaper.

“My parents, Charles and Opal Cunningham moved to La Mesa in 1948 from Ashland, Kentucky. They have lived in the same La Mesa house since then. The trip out here took my family 10 days on the road, in the middle of the summer with no air conditioning. There were seven of us in the car, including Mom, Dad, two boys, two girls and my Mom's sister. . .Do you write personal stories on long time residents of our town?”

In my old metro newspaper role with the San Diego Union-Tribune, stories of long anniversaries were like “five generation gatherings” – an evergreen that can find its way into print only if there was some odd twist to it, say, “five generations and all albinos.’’

In the brave new world of local media, I returned her e-mail with a phone message within ten minutes. Cheryl was shocked at the fast response. Her shock added a tone of disappointment when she learned “La Mesa Today’’ was only an on-line publication. Still, we called her back and she would see where this got her.

I traveled the two miles or so between my newsroom/living room and Cheryl’s parents’ home in just minutes. I spent the next hour with Charles and Opal, a delightful, loving and funny couple whose life, it occurred to me only as we spoke, had mirrored the history of this little western city: immigrants from the east who leave a beloved, but quiet home in search of something else.

I returned home, new pictures and video in camera. Co-founder and publisher, Gina Garcia, returned to spend hours pouring through family albums and scrapbooks that span, literally, a century. I wrote this story. Gina  created a video and photo montage.

Normally, I would have quickly moved on to whatever comes next, but I remembered what I took to be Cheryl’s disappointment in being in an on-line only publication.
So I followed her lead. I searched for “newspapers, Ashland, Kentucky’’ and within a few minutes I was talking with Mark Maynard, the managing editor of that town’s “Daily Independent.’’

It was noon and Maynard had the fatigued sound of a print editor facing Saturday, Sunday and Monday deadlines all at the same time. I told him about Charles and Opal and offered him the story, photos and on-line package for free. He seemed interested, but we both went about our business and I never heard from him again.

On Sunday, Gina and I decided to return Charles and Opal’s photos during the party their family was throwing for their 75th. We brought some flowers and intended to stay for just minutes.
We arrived at their quaint home of 63 years and found the couples seated side-by-side in a love seat, greeting well-wishers from the neighborhood and beyond. The younger crowd was passing around laptops displaying the story we had published.

As we waited in the greeting line, a phone rang. Words were exchanged over the din and soon the handset was handed to Charles and everyone was asked to hush.

A smile suddenly came over Charles’ face as he listened and, then, just as suddenly, a tear started down his cheek. He handed the phone to Opal and she smiled and cried too.
And then Charles handed the phone -- to me!

On the other end, with the measured, sweet lilt of a rural, Kentucky accent, a clearly elderly woman said this:

“I am Charles’ cousin. Your story was well-placed on the front page of our Daily Independent this morning and I can’t thank you enough for the detail and the memories. We were so glad to learn of this and to get in touch again.’’

Mr. Maynard, the Kentucky editor, had come through for Charles and Opal, six decades after they left his circulation area, and now Cheryl would have that clipping for the scrapbook.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for what is to come of print journalism; editors like Maynard culling from the wider world of the web those choice things that speak directly to his audience and are worthy of print’s special touch. Print newspapers become more the second draft of history, instead of the first. Fewer but better stories.

 And as Gina and I left Charles and Opal that day, we were convinced as ever that there remains a strong need in our community for someone who will answer “yes’’ when asked if “we write stories.’’

Chris Lavin, founder and editor of LaMesaToday.com, is a former Senior Editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. On La Mesa is his occasional column on life in this city. 

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