Should the media try to make a difference?

If you think that’s a stupid question, you’re probably an old-fashioned journalist, or at least old fashioned. But Nick Coleman, the long-time columnist at the Star Tribune, says he think the media is too afraid to make a difference these days.

He never got much of a chance to say goodbye to his readers — some of whom hung on his every word, and some who exalted in the opportunity to hate what he wrote. Back in the day, that’s what columnists did — they got people riled up. Those days are pretty much over at newspapers, who can no longer afford to alienate anyone. Coleman took a buyout from the Star Tribune.

He talked with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer. (The audio is below the fold)

Q: Why didn’t you take the job that was offered, writing for the variety section?

A: I worked on the variety staff 26 years ago, before I became a media critic. I’ve done that. After 3,500 columns, I’m set in my ways.

Q: What was the rationale behind the Star Tribune’s eliminating your column.

A: I don’t know. I wasn’t given any explanation. I suggested other possibilities but they were never discussed.

Here’s the Cliffs Notes version.

Q: Why not say goodbye to people?

A: It’s complicated. I was stumped for what to say and how do you say it without sounding pathetic. I didn’t want my column to become the world’s tiniest violin. I feel bad that I didn’t say goodbye but I didn’t leave voluntarily. The column was taken away from me and it’s up to someone else to explain why.

Q: What was your goal in writing the columns?

A: There’s so many ways to write a column but I was taught by the nuns on West Seventh and Randolph that writing is supposed to make a difference. I adopted their sensibility. You write about people and their real concerns and you try to tackle their common interests with a common touch and find a common purpose. These days that makes me some kind of dinosaur. I believe newspapers should make a difference.

Q: Did you make a difference?

A: Yes. I’ve had enough people tell me that. The license of a column is you can use it to provide insight into what is happening to people and why it’s happening. Sometimes the job is to point a finger at powerful people who may not be speaking honestly. I never thought a columnist’s job was to be loved.

Q: Why paper is going to survive in the Twin Cities.

A: I don’t know but I’m open to offers. I’m 58 and I’m not ready to retire. I still have young children to send to school. People are being pushed out of this business and both papers have lost thousands upon thousands of years of experience of covering the Twin Cities. You see errors in both papers now that would’ve been unthinkable years ago.

I’m trying to cobble together some kind of teaching or blogging and speaking. I still have much to say about these towns. I don’t want to go learn a new town at 58.

Q: What stories do you want to cover?

A: I don’t have a list. In the newspaper business it’s so day-to-day oriented that I often didn’t know going into an office each day what I would write about.

Readers want perspective and context in stories about real people that are not told in a voice by people who are afraid to make sense of something. I think we get overwhelmed with the “he said she said,” people get very burned out on that. But if you can tell stories in a way that tries to make sense of it and point out the ridiculousness of it, or the outrage of it, you want to make people… laugh or cry.

Q: What story made you cry?

A: I did one about five years ago after I returned to the Star Tribune after the Pioneer Press. There was a young Indian soldier from the Cheyenne River Reservation from the middle of South Dakota who’d been killed in Iraq. I went to the reservation for his funeral. It was an amazing, overwhelming, sad and wonderful two-day ceremony. That one would still make me cry if I read it. I love funeral stories. They’re not just sad and grieving, but you hear so many great, wonderful, funny, touching stories at funerals. The press rarely covers someone’s funeral.

You should be sad and happy if you’re alive in this world because that’s the kind of world we live in. For some reason, it’s become very hard in this environment for media to want to make an impact. It’s almost as if there are forces at work to not try to make too much of a difference and I don’t get that.

A lot of media, especially the ones who are just barely holding on, are trying not to get anyone upset and are trying to not be accused of trying to make any difference. And I don’t think it’s just a printing press for making money. It’s supposed to be some kind of higher calling to be in this business, or you might as well be doing something else that has shorter hours and better benefits.

People are afraid of speaking up and speaking out. The whole world seems to be boiling down to Barack Obama vs. Rush Limbaugh and I think it’s bigger than that. I think there’s much more that needs to be discussed, but I am surprised after eight years of George Bush and the kind of political change we saw through January, that there’s still a large reluctance for people to speak up and speak out, and express in a respectful way their point of view.