Saturday, August 28, 2010

Let's get started with a story...

Before we talk about your stories, let me tell you one of mine.

It happened about 15 years ago, in a small city in Connecticut where I was a newspaper columnist. I was out to dinner at a restaurant, one that I remember had that day’s newspaper above the urinals in the men’s room, so you know it was a classy place.

At one of those wall units, a gentleman was reading the front of the sports section. The page had one of my columns on it. The man glanced over at me, then looked up at my column mug. Then he did a double-take straight out of a B movie.

“It’s you!” he said, turning my way. Except he hadn’t finished what he’d come into the room to do. I had recognition dribbling down my pant leg.

You might think that, other than the dry cleaning bill, this kind of enthusiasm was a good thing. But journalists, especially newspaper journalists, are largely a shy breed. Most of us got into this business to write some stories and right some wrongs, not to have the lens turned toward us.

That’s difficult now in a digital world. Reporters no longer hide behind their bylines. We blog. We answer emails. We get comments on our stories. Boy, do we get comments.

That exposure is especially true for columnists, a role I’m beginning for the Observer today. Used to be that column writing was a one-way thing - we’d fling open our window, shout what we wanted to shout, then slam it shut until the next time. But now, we’re relearning the value of a good conversation.

Some newspapers, including the Observer, have staffers called “reader engagement editors” whose job is to get you and us talking. The idea is to help us learn what’s happening, what people are thinking, what we’re missing. It also helps push us - and you - beyond what we think we know about each other.

So what do you need to know about me? I’m 45, a husband, a dad. I’m about to become the third smartest person in my house, behind my wife who was ahead of me all along – and my 9-year-old son who is gaining fast. I attend church each week. I like sports. I write beer reviews. I grill.

I’ll be writing a column for this page on Sundays. I’m not replacing Tommy Tomlinson, who made this space sing for 13 years. Tommy will still be writing for the Observer in exciting new ways in print and online.

As for me, I’ve been writing news and features and sports for almost 20 years, long enough to understand that you rarely peg folks based on first impressions, or even third impressions.

Here’s an example: If I tell you I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, which I did, some of you will get to work taping up that ideological box we like to put people in. But what if I tell you I voted for George Bush in 2000? And that I’m not entirely comfortable with the way either decided to spend my tax dollars?

This is what happens with conversations. If you’re willing to listen to people’s stories, you’ll find your notions challenged. Not that you’ll necessarily change your mind. But you’re going to question things. That’s what we’ll do here.

One more item about me: I’m one of those shy types whose job calls on him to talk to folks.

That’s a good thing. Each week, I’ll be posting this column online on my blog, along with other thoughts during the week. There, you can tell me what you think – or ask me what the heck I was thinking. I promise the conversation will not end there.

You can even do it the old-fashioned way, with a phone call, or the sorta old-fashioned way, with an email. Or say hello if you see me on the street or in a restaurant. Even in a rest room. But a handshake will do just fine.