From the Editor: Substance Works
The trend in magazines these days, as in the culture at large, leans toward fluff. The conventional wisdom holds that we look to media to fill some base lowest-common-denominator needs; that’s why we spent the summer being inundated by cover stories about the likes of Paris Hilton, even as so many of you complained about Paris overload. The media barons have the market research to justify their choices; Paris (or Anna Nicole, or Brangelina, or Britney … ), it turns out, sells.
I don’t deny that vacuous celebrity culture sells magazines, but I don’t buy the conventional wisdom. If enlightened readers are given a choice, I believe they’ll opt, not for the steady stream of trash that editorial groupthink seems to deliver, but for losing themselves in stories that move them and shed light on their lives and spur them to think.
I believe this because you’ve proven to me that substance works. Take our features this month. Yes, there’s terrific service journalism — food editor April White’s tour of the best deals in meals, plus a home package that offers tips on the latest trend: living small. But there are also some 20,000 words for you to lose yourself in, stories with larger-than-life characters, gripping narratives and big, universal themes: Jessica Pressler’s “Class Warfare” (page 90), about the smackdown at the Baldwin School, also offers a glimpse into the clash of values on the modern-day Main Line; Matt Teague’s “Tortured” (page 94), an account of the moral reckoning undergone by a Bethlehem man who interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib, underscores the frightening lengths to which this war is being outsourced to American companies; Steve Volk’s “Dead Air” (page 98), a meticulously reported dispatch about the state of public broadcasting in our town; “He Said, They Said” (page 102), Dan P. Lee’s fascinating saga of just how the man said to be our commonwealth’s most successful serial date-rapist apparently got away with it for so long.
These stories all hold up on their own as engrossing reads. But taken together, they also reveal your region to you — its quirks and tensions, its heroes and zeros. I believe that this magazine (and other city titles, like our sister publication, Boston) is one of the last bastions of long-form narrative journalism. It’s the type of journalism that matters, from a civic point of view, and that works, along the bottom line. It works because of you; more than a third of our readers, after all, have post-graduate degrees. You’re smart (I know this firsthand, from your calls and letters that frequently put me in my place), and you want a smart alternative in the vast media wasteland. Here we are (pardon the ass-kiss), trying to be as smart as you.
A WORD ABOUT the aforementioned piece on WHYY, “Dead Air,” by Steve Volk. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of the recent, terrific HBO documentary on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Turns out, shortly before the Dodgers ripped out the heart of a community in favor of great parking clear across the country, Brooklyn’s local newspaper of record, the Eagle, had folded. Some argue that if it hadn’t, if the community had had a forum in which citizens’ voices could be heard, the team might not have abandoned New York.
I don’t know if that would really have made the difference, but there’s no question media can meld disparate groups into a community whose members understand that their own interests are intertwined with their neighbors’. Volk’s piece is, undeniably and unapologetically, tough. But it is tough in the best sense of the word: At its core, the critique comes from a place of local patriotism. We take on vital civic institutions because they’re vital; when, like WHYY, they’re not used to their fullest potential, we all suffer from the lowered expectations. We want to turn on Channel 12 and see, in effect, a local C-SPAN, and we want great documentaries produced here instead of in Pittsburgh and Boston. We think that’s not too much to ask of an institution that should be an important community leader.