Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
July 15, 2009
Over the years, I have said, in various training seminars, conventions and other assorted gatherings when I am asked to share my highly questionable “wisdom” (ha!), that one of the glories of small-town journalism is the immediate feedback.
When you work at a small-town newspaper like The Aspen Times, I explain, there’s really nowhere to hide.
If you misquote someone in Monday morning’s paper, you’re bound to run into that same person Monday afternoon at the post office or the supermarket.
And when that happens, they will tell you, at the very least, that you misquoted them. They may also tell you what they think of your personality, your writing skills, your wardrobe choices, your haircut and your general worth (or absolute lack thereof) as a human being.
It’s not always pleasant – but who’s saying that an encounter like that ought to be pleasant? More importantly, it is almost always valuable for you as a reporter and as a human being.
To put it simply, when you screw up, it’s good to get your butt kicked. (I speak metaphorically. Actual physical contact between foot and posterior is generally not a good thing.)
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And, even beyond the fair-is-fair, tit-for-tat of getting reprimanded when you make a mistake, there’s the lesson of being reminded that, as a reporter, you are writing about real people with real feelings.
That is certainly a valuable lesson, one which needs to be regularly refreshed.
To some extent, that’s part of why we put our names on what we write and why – here in Aspen, at least – we go even one step further for columnists and put our pictures right there with our names. And I’m amazed how many people recognize me from that damn picture and want to talk – for better or for worse – about something I’ve written recently. (I’m amazed – and discouraged, actually – how often I’m recognized. I think I’m much better-looking than that picture, but there you go.)
I’m writing about all of this because last weekend, while I was evaluating peaches at the Basalt Sunday Market (a great addition to the midvalley), a woman standing next to me said, “Andy, I need to talk to you.”
She finished paying for her organic produce, then waited patiently while I bought three ripe peaches. Then we walked a few steps away to a quiet spot. She introduced herself and told me that she had really hated something I’d written in last week’s column.
In fact, she told me that I had hurt her feelings.
And as she explained – patiently, pleasantly, intelligently – her position, I realized with a rush of embarrassment that she was absolutely right.
I may or may not have blushed, although I certainly felt like it. I stumbled to explain what I had meant to write, as opposed to what I had actually written. She looked skeptical.
I’m not going to tell you her name, since I didn’t tell her that I wanted to write about our conversation. So I’ll just say that she is the matriarch of a longtime (generations-long) local family with strong ties to the construction industry.
She was upset that I had made a wild generalization about “cranky construction workers” who clog the highway with their “squadrons of pick-up trucks.” I suggested they were all “hostile drivers who careen down the highway in venom-filled bubbles of hate.”
Gee, I wonder why she was offended.
I tried to explain – and I was much less eloquent than she was – that I was writing about the construction guys who live 50, 60, 80 miles or more away. I was writing about the people who have no fondness for Aspen, no connection to this valley. I was writing about the people who come for the money, hate the commute and seem to take that hatred out on everyone around them as they drive to work every morning.
That was who I thought I was writing about. That was who I meant to write about.
But maybe I wrote too quickly. Maybe I edited too quickly – trying to keep the column short enough to leave room for that damn picture.
And, if not too quickly, maybe I wrote and edited too carelessly, too thoughtlessly.
As she and I talked there in Basalt on a sunny Sunday morning, I realized that we probably never would agree completely on what I had written, even if I had managed to make my points more clearly.
She thinks people in pick-ups are often more polite than other drivers. She said they’re almost the only ones who stop, while heading out of town, to let her make a left turn across traffic to get to the Music Tent.
For my part, after a decade of commuting from El Jebel to Aspen every day, I have my own horror stories to the contrary.
But without any question, she was right that I had been far too general in my condemnation of “construction workers.”
Her own good manners argued unanswerably for the quality of her family and, I suspect, for many or most (if not, who knows, even all) of the people whom they have hired to work for them.
I’m not writing this column to apologize to her. (Well, maybe a little.) I’m writing it to celebrate, yet again, the wonders of small-town newspapers – where people can greet you by name and tell you what they think.
Politely – in the style of the woman I talked to on Sunday – is always preferred, of course.