Okay, so my first proper foray into citizen journalism did not go all that well. Here’s what happened.
I was heading home from my second coffeehouse of the day, and there was a Thing going on downtown: kids in their 20s were standing around outside the First Churches, with signs. The signs, in typical Noho fashion, were hand-painted with what looked like tempara paint, and the one that I noticed read “Community not Consumerism.” This was happening at our city’s primary informal Civic Spot, which is a strange 60’s looking aluminum curved bench with kiosks on either side. It’s incredibly versitile, and functions like an analog wiki: people put up notices of events and things for sale on the kiosks, and hang out on the benches; The Gap parks itself there to give out sandwiches on Wednesday and Saturday at midday (it’s a program sort of run through College Church, which started out as an attempt to fill, yes, a gap in homeless services in Northampton– free lunches on days when other churches weren’t doing lunches, I think, and that sort of thing) and Jakob’s Well, which my friend Leah runs, is there on Friday nights distributing pizza. Lots of people show up for these events, not just bona fide homeless people, although they come too.
The fact that this area was getting this kind of play today could probably be considered a sign of spring– the public sphere equivalent of snowdrops. It wasn’t quite warm enough to be hanging out in the full-muscle-relaxation mode of July, but they were pretending it was. The concentration of street musicians was also low, comparted to later in the season, by there were some. One guy was giving out daffodils– he gave me a fistful of them, which I stuck in my book bag. There was food of some kind, which they were also giving out; and one of the people there was my tall redheaded neighbor Stephen. Stephen is exactly the person to show up at an event like this: at our Christmas party, when we went around and knocked on all the neighbors’ doors to invite them, he’s the only one who actually came. Half an hour after he showed up, he somewhat apologetically asked if he could let his rat eat some of his chili: he had a white rat on his person somewhere; it had been there the whole time, keeping a low profile. He is a Northampton Pedal Person, a practitioner of a business model that is itself so Noho-typical that it makes me happy every time I see it in action.
Well, I took the daffodils and went home, and then developed a small but intense fantasy where a Spencer Tracy-type editor said to me “Okay, kid, go out and get the story. Five hundred words on my desk by seven tonight.” I have been recently obsessed with the idea of citizen journalism, and when a fiction writer who watched lots of ’40s movies in her youth gets obsessed with citizen journalism, this is what happens.
I was stressing out– could I really get a story in in three hours? Would Spencer Tracy accept second-hand reporting, or commentary? Did it have to be local, or could I just try to work in a local angle? I was thinking of all these things somewhat absently, not sure how seriously I was taking them, when the Brain Wave came: I would go Get The Story of Stephen and the civic/activist event, whatever it was. I concocted questions in my head, kicking myself for never really giving much thought to the craft of interviewing– there was no time now; got to get the copy on Spencer’s desk by seven, and it was past four– okay, plain ol’ nosy instincts will have to do:
1. What is going on?
2. Who are you guys?
3. What do you want to do? What are your goals?
4. Is this connected to some knd of organization?
5. What would a really wonderful community look like, for you?
6. If you could change one thing about Northamopton, what would it be?
7. What’s your favorite part of Northampton?
8. Is this event, whatever it is, a new thing?
9. What was your inspiration?
10. What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened as you’ve done this?
11. Anyone give you any trouble?
12. What’s the relationship between the two kinds of street people here– the older homeless people who don’t want to be homeless, and you street kids who are kind of hanging out and trekking around?
After the brainwave, I rushed around for a while throwing my laptop and notebooks into my bike basket, and biked back downtown, thiniking about how if I got this story, Spencer would probably give me a grey fedora that had some historic or personal significance, that I could tuck my press card into, and wondering if there was a PDF of a press card somewhere that I could print out and have laminated. One that made it clear, or course, that I was just a blogger and had no official standing, but one that nonetheless had excellent and possibly ironically retro graphic design.
But by the time I got there, everyone was gone. I biked sadly back. What would I put on Spencer’s desk? He hadn’t been very specific about genre– hadn’t said it had to be hard news… Woujld he accept a semi-humerous personal essay about my failed attempt to Get the Story, with my assurances that I would go back next Sunday to try to do the actual interview?
Let’s hope so.