We can’t afford to be like the New York Times. Newspaper people all around the world say that from time to time. Someone around our office said it just the other day and I grunted in agreement. Of course we can’t — not U.S. 1 with its 19,000 circulation, not even the entire newly re-constituted Community News Service, with its line-up of 10 community newspapers (including U.S. 1) and its combined reach of 160,000-plus homes and businesses.
No, all the stories of the death of print newspapers notwithstanding, the New York Times remains the king of newspapers, with an average weekday circulation of 1.2 million (1.6 million on Sunday), an operating profit of more than $106 million in just the fourth quarter of last year, and — what makes me call it the king — unsurpassed news coverage from its front door to the corners of the world.
The other day I saw a dispatch on the front page of the Times from war-torn Syria, where foreign journalists have been virtually banned. The story had an unusual byline: “This story is by an employee of the New York Times in Syria and Damien Cave.” Somehow the Times had managed to get a person inside Syria. Around here I would think twice before dispatching a reporter to Sayreville. For sure, we can’t afford to be like the New York Times.
But then I had second thoughts. Flipping back through the inevitable pile of partially read New York Timeses that had accumulated on my living room floor (each set aside with the optimistic idea that I wanted to look at it one more time before I sent it to recycling), I marveled at how many of the most compelling stories were based less on expansive expense accounts, and more on expansive thinking.
The Times had an intriguing story on marriage proposals orchestrated with flash mobs. And a business editor took what might have been an ordinary press release about a name change and turned it into a feature.
The point was driven home last week, when I saw an obituary for Iver Peterson, a longtime national reporter for the New York Times who made his home in Lawrenceville. The obit jumped out at me: Peterson was the Times writer who had taken note of the not-yet three-year-old U.S. 1 and used the rise of the paper as a way to tell the story of the blossoming of the Route 1 business corridor in the October 30, 1987, edition of the Times:
“Route 1, as it is understood around here, is not the thousands of miles of United States Highway 1 that snake from Fort Kent, Me., to Key West, Fla. A Route 1 story around here usually involves traffic jams along the 20-mile stretch of road between New Brunswick and Trenton.
“Over the last decade or so, there has been such an up-welling of sober-sided office parks, glossy hotels and flag-spangled shopping malls that the whole thing has come to stand in people’s minds as a separate place, not yet a city, no longer just a zoning variance, from the handful of townships it slices through.
“All this new place needed was its own Walt Whitman to sing of it, and that is what Mr. Rein decided to become, by starting U.S. 1, Princeton’s Business and Entertainment Journal.”
What made Iver Peterson’s story sing, I realized then and confirmed it with a recent re-reading, was that he based it not on a sit-down interview in my office (or a phone interview, which would have been the 1987 equivalent of an E-mail exchange), but rather on hanging out for a few hours with me as I went out on a reporting assignment.
I still remember the assignment vividly: I was driving Craig Terry, U.S. 1’s photographer, to several assignments, picking up background information along the way. (As people put up their guard for the photo session, we discovered, they lowered their guard for the reporter.)
Peterson was in the back seat, asking questions and taking notes. As our session wore on, Terry and I began to drop our guard as well. When we dropped Peterson off back at his car we both looked at each other and said something to the effect that we should have been more serious in front of the guy from the New York Times.
But that didn’t matter because, it turned out when we read the story a few days later, Peterson had nailed the essence of both U.S. 1 and the fast growing new business community we were covering. I got calls from people all over the country. And U.S. 1 suddenly had a powerful clipping that could go into a media kit.
So when I saw the obituary for Peterson, who died August 1 at the age of 70, I hurried over to the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville last Friday and joined the crowd for his funeral. Family and friends spoke, and they emphasized Peterson’s love for and support of family and friends. In the grand scheme of Peterson’s life, journalism may have taken a second position to family and friends. But one of the speakers mentioned his journalistic drive and his admonition: “Never cheapen the beat.”
I wasn’t sure I heard it correctly. “Never cheat the beat?” That turns out to be a musical expression referring to a performer short-changing a note, maybe failing to hold a quarter-note for its full time, in order to move on to the next note.
Don’t cheapen the beat is a journalistic phrase, and not so different. It dates back to the days when reporters were assigned to specific “beats,” or subject areas. If your beat one day includes an assignment to cover an upstart, small town newspaper owner, don’t cheapen it by phoning it in. Take an extra hour or two and get the feel of the story.
When it comes to sending reporters to Syria, no, we cannot afford to be like the New York Times. When it comes to thinking creatively, and faithfully covering our beat, we can’t afford not to be like the Times. And if along the way a story happens to sing a little, then we’ll thank Iver Peterson for that.