Newsgathering for beginners

One of my fantasies, upon entering the sort of involuntary semi-retirement I now enjoy, was to teach.

Nothing as ordinary (or boring, or difficult) as post-graduate economics or high school history; but something drawing from my own experience, and imparting knowledge that my “students” could actually use in their daily life.

What I wanted to offer was a course — college extension, maybe, or Learning Annex — in “How to Read a Newspaper.”It would cover everything from terminology (“op-ed,” “above the fold,” “graf.” “burying the lede,” etc.); to how and why stories appear in the paper; and why certain names keep reappearing (often because the reporters and editors can’t be bothered to find new spokespeople, sometimes because they want to drop what they believe to be fashionable names, and occasionally because they want free passes to Disneyland).

Maybe I could even teach them to fold newspapers into a “pressman’s hat,” as they used to do back in the press rooms.

I could do it (other then the hat bit), having worked for general-circulation papers and trade papers for many years, and having read at least one daily since my early teens. My family subscribed to the Los Angeles Times and the local, evening paper; while in college, I read the local papers in New Orleans and Santa Fe; and currently I read the Los Angeles Times every day, and the Sunday New York Times. Plus, the L.A. Weekly (for the colonics and “massage” ads), and, occasionally, weeklies like The Tolucan Times, from nearby L.A. suburbs. I’m a newsprint guy.

Of course, now that newspapers have become less and less thick with editorial content and advertising (not a coincidence! I would teach), not to mention less and less relevant, so would my figurative class attract fewer students. At this point, I’m sorry to say, I see neither demand nor need for a class in “How to Read a Newspaper.”

Still. pretty much every day I read something that I’d like to discuss in my “class”: why the West Side of Los Angeles gets consistently more coverage than the rest of the county; why the restaurant critic doesn’t cover places where people actually eat; and why the Los Angeles Times‘s pop music critic lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama*. (Not that she always lived there. When The Times hired her, she was living in Seattle. Any time spent in Los Angeles was, for all practical purpose, a transitory phase).

Here’s a quick sample, from today’s paper. I’ll quote the first two paragraphs of Catherine Saillant’s reportage of corruption in a small, rural town just outside the Los Angeles County limits:

Residents of Fillmore followed their usual rhythms this week, gathering at the local Starbucks to hash out recent events as giant farm tractors and motorists rolled by on nearby California 126.

Talk turned to Pete Egedi, the town’s former fire chief, who has been under a cloud since he was accused two years ago of embezzling tens of thousands of city dollars. The latest news about Egedi is like a black eye on City Hall that won’t go away, residents say.

Here, I would explain, is what (probably) really happened: After driving approximately an hour from The Times‘s Spring Street headquarters, via freeway and local road, the reporter finds the civic center (you have to turn off the highway — such as it is — to get there). Looking, as we all will, for a familiar sight, she spots a Starbucks. It’s been a long and rather tedious drive, and a nice, venti half-caf cappuccino sounds like a good idea. When the reporter enters the Starbucks, she spots several people — they must be locals; Fillmore is out of the way, and only a tourist destination a few times each year — sitting around a table, discussing last night’s episode of “The Biggest Loser.”

“Talk turned to Pete Egedii…”

“Excuse me,” the reporter says, interrupting the conversation (she’s a reporter; that’s her job), “Do any of you know who Pete Egedi is?”

The rest comes easily.

Incidentally: I’ve been to Fillmore, on several occasions (well, “though it” on several occasions, going from Santa Paula to I-5 and on to home; “to it” a couple of times, to see the nifty railroad). And though Fillmore is a predominantly agricultural community, with lots of hard-working farm folk who might be, on the average, somewhat larger and more muscular than the crowd the Times reporter may normally hang with, I’d say that calling them, even the motorists, “giant” is something of an exaggeration.

Or a job for the copy editors, if the paper still has any.

* Update: She is no longer the paper’s rock critic, having landed a better job elsewhere. And the current LAT rock critic actually lives here. Don’t know what they were thinking.