Welcome to Breaking the News!
This will be my online home for reports, discussions, questions, podcasts, and other features about, well, the breaking news in the U.S. and around the world. And a lot more (including but not limited to China, beer, technology, and aviation—which are a few items from a more detailed list you’ll find below).
For instance, the next post I am working on will be on the specific language and cadences Joe Biden used in his August 31 White House speech on Afghanistan, and the obvious and hidden ways in which they matched the message he wanted to convey. (Update: that post is here. And two more about presidential rhetoric are here and here.)
Back to the future
If you remember the blogging era, that gives an idea of the tone, pace, and ambition I have for this site. Blogs flourished at many major publications about a dozen years ago. Indeed in 2008 The Atlantic featured a whole cover story, by Andrew Sullivan, called “Why I Blog.”
“Its truths are provisional,” Sullivan wrote of the blogging world, “and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal…. It has enabled writers to write out loud in ways never seen or understood before.” I would add “think out loud” and “learn in public” to the assessment.
For many reasons, the sprawling, messy, but informative realm of the personal blog became a less and less natural fit to the structure and responsibilities of major publications, which of course have never been more crucial to our democracy. But I believe that the kind of communication and connection blogs made possible—between writer and reader, between writer and theme, among writers and readers who eventually formed a community—may also be even more important than before.
I know it matters to me. Thus, again, welcome to Breaking the News!
I’m starting this site because I want to find new ways to use the old, fundamental tools that originally drew me into the reporter’s life—seeing, listening, telling. I want to apply them to the trends, the crises, and the possibilities of the moment. But I also want to re-employ a tool that I became aware of in the blogging era. That is the potential of connecting.
The rest of this introductory post explains what I mean about these reportorial impulses, and how I hope to use and expand them. You can think of those as details supporting an invitation and request: that you support this work, and help create a community of people who help one another make sense of our times.
Now the details:
The Reporter’s Role: Seeing, Listening, and Telling…
Through my many decades as a reporter, I’ve recognized several main impulses that make people decide to spend their lives this way. Those are: seeing, listening, and telling.
Seeing and listening are the fun parts. As a reporter you have a reason to ask people about their lives, to hear their stories, to view the world through their eyes. You have a chance in your own limited span on Earth to witness some of the experiences of countless other people’s lifetimes. For magazine articles, book reporting, radio broadcasts, and film productions I’ve been in more venues than I ever could have imagined. From coal mines to cocoa farms, from a nuclear-powered submarine to a high-energy particle accelerator, from the rear seat of an F-15 to the assembly floor of a Chinese factory complex where half a million people lived and worked.
As I mention in the recent HBO film Our Towns, based on the book that Deb Fallows and I wrote, like many reporters I am naturally not very outgoing. This occupational duty gives me an open-ended license to ask people anything I want. “How does this work?” “What are we looking at here?” Playing the role of a reporter has allowed me to see and hear things I’d otherwise just have wondered about. It’s a role I love.
Telling is the work. It’s the price you pay, for having the privilege of seeing and learning. I roll my eyes when I hear people say they “like to write.” People who write for a living, like having written. Writing itself is never fun. But going through the labor of composing, revising, editing, condensing is how you fulfill your part of the journalistic bargain. Otherwise you’d be just a tourist or voyeur. What people know about the world outside their immediate experience, they know because someone has gone out to see and listen, and then taken the trouble to tell.
This is why reporting matters.
… but also, Connecting
I always knew about those impulses. But I’ve become more acutely aware of another tool, and impulse, which is: to connect people. That is a principal reason for launching this site.
In my early days in journalism, “connection” with readers took the form of the occasional telephone call and the frequent paper letter. The letters that you wanted to drop into the trash as soon as you opened them could look like hostage-ransom notes, with words cut out from newspapers. Or they were typed with nonexistent margins, so that words (often in ALL CAPS LIKE THIS!!!) covered every square micron of the page. The most thoughtful and engaging ones were sometimes typewritten or sometimes with antique careful penmanship. In between were people sending a range of criticism and support.
I had a personal web site in the early 1990s—even before The Atlantic launched its “Atlantic Unbound,” which has grown into TheAtlantic.com. The magic of these sites was the virtual community they allowed to exist. I know, in the era of social-media sewers, the appeal of “virtual community” can sound hopelessly naive. But my experience through many years of the blogging era is that, with attention and care, an online community can be informative, and even inspiring, in unique ways. An active use of “reader mail” and reader suggestions has been a large and important part of my blogging life.
Deb and I saw this throughout the Our Towns travels, from the very start. In the spring of 2013, I put up an Atlantic blog post asking readers to tell the stories of their towns. In a very short time we got nearly 1,000 detailed and revelatory replies. We would never run out of places to go.
I ask your help.
Seeing, listening, telling, connecting, about the crises of the era but also the possibilities—those are the ambitions behind this site. The topics I have queued up cover a broad range, following subjects I’ve written about before. As a start:
American history, and American prospects; the challenges of local and national renewal; regional and rural policies; life in China, and relations with China; military policy and military choices; politics, the presidency, and political rhetoric; the technology industry and personal technology; geography and “geo-journalism”; aviation and aerospace; education, especially community colleges and “career technical” programs; books; the national media; local media; local engagement (including leafblowers!); appreciations of those well-known, and otherwise; and more.
This is the work I hope you will support—as readers, contributors, and subscribers. Sign up for the newsletter; visit the site; consider a paid subscription if you can, which will offer special community-oriented features and will support the reporting and writing that will go into this site. Together, let’s build a community to which we all want to belong.