The Hamilton Post shares its newsroom with the nine other newspapers under the Community News Service umbrella, and from my Hamilton bubble, I often overhear what serves as scandal and debate in the other towns and publications.
This happened a couple weeks ago when one of our accomplished columnists penned a piece about the history of the landscaping around his house, and suggested calling his work “My oldest tree.” He usually writes about things of general interest—sidewalks, shopping centers, birds—as they relate to the town where he has lived since 1957. But for the editors involved, this particular headline seemed a bit too generic, especially for a column that contained more than just a description of an old tree.
But the writer insisted. He wanted his column to have the headline “My oldest tree.”
Thus kicked off one of those conversations that turns journalists into philosophers (this happens more than any of us would like to admit). It went something like this:
Editor: Will people read a column headlined “My oldest tree”?
Columnist: Lots of people. It’s interesting. It’s an old tree.
Editor: Are old trees interesting?
Columnist: Sure, they are.
Editor: OK, but the column is about more than an old tree. Should we reference more about the rest of the gardening?
Columnist: It’s not about gardening; I’ve done columns on gardening.
Editor: Yes, OK.
Columnist: It’s about trees. Old trees. My oldest tree.
Editor: Does anyone care enough about your oldest tree to read a column about it?
Columnist: I think so.
The conversation went round and round until the parties struck a compromise to tweak the headline slightly: “The story of my oldest tree.” And, to this very moment, I still don’t know for sure if old trees are interesting or if people care enough about an old tree to read a column about one. I guess I’m setting out to find out myself.
Now, this all may be a bit of inside baseball. But the point is: in this newsroom—and in media companies across the country—we don’t know what will interest people. We only know what interests us and what we think will interest people. It’s why it is vital journalists engage our audience, listen to readers, get out in our communities, pay attention to trends. They sound like buzzwords—and they are—but they’re also important. Through experience and experimenting, we can get a sense of what is important to our community and what subjects people want in the paper. But sensing these things and knowing are two different things.
Which is why we’re not being lazy if we’re asking for your help; we’re doing our job. If you’re getting mad about The Media, then, hey, that’s on you as much as it’s on us. Because, instead of stewing, you simply could let us know when we’re missing out on an important topic. If there’s something that ought to be covered, tell us.
Most of us in the media are more friendly and receptive than some people would like you to think. It doesn’t mean we’ll cover every tip we get, but the more we know what our readers want, the more the stories start reflecting those desires. And, just as important, the less time journalists spend debating things that have no correct answers.
This, I’ve discovered, does not include old trees. Yes, I think I’ve cracked that case.
You see, shortly after the aforementioned writer-editor debate, I mentioned to my fiancée that there was some discussion of old trees in the newsroom, and I now was unsure whether old trees were actually interesting or if I was interested in old trees only because of how bizarre it is that an entire newsroom has spent weeks considering whether old trees are best in the newspaper or as the newspaper.
She laughed, and said, “Well, we did take an entire vacation based around old trees.” This is true—I did spend most of our 2014 trip to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks gawking at large, old trees. But so do millions of people every year. I doubt our columnist has busloads of Nikon-wielding people stopping in his backyard to snap photographs of his oldest tree. I know I don’t.
But, to be fair, I am attached to my oldest tree—an oak that is about 155-years old and needs to be trimmed sooner rather than later. Squirrels have been using its upper branches as an on-ramp to my roof and dumping acorns into the stack vent. We’ve found at least one squirrel that met its demise attempting the traverse.
I guess that means I must find old trees interesting, considering I’ve gone on here as long as I have. I admit I spend more time staring at my oldest tree now. One weekend in mid-February, my neighbor caught me doing just that. She stopped, said hello and then pointed to the tree.
“You really ought to think about cutting about 8 feet off of that thing,” she said.
“Yeah, I have a lot to think about these days.”
And now that includes my oldest tree.