A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bringing Home the News

Earlier this year, Larry McDermott, publisher of Springfield's daily newspaper, The Republican, wrote a column about the top news stories of 2006. He compared his list with the most popular stories on MassLive, the internet arm of The Republican. It's anybody's guess who reads what in a newspaper, but page loads on a web site can be precisely tallied. Of course, people who get their news from the internet are one demographic, and people who read newspapers made from actual paper are another. Still, the comparison is instructive.

The Republican's choice for top ten stories of 2006:

1. Deval Patrick elected governor.
2. Wars in Iraq, Afganistan take toll on Western Mass.
3. Asselin clan corruption scandal.
4. Springfield run by state-appointed Finance Control Board.
5. Pioneer Valley Transit Authority corruption scandal.
6. Gay marriage battle in the Statehouse.
7. Mass Turnpike Authority abolishes tolls in Western Mass.
8. Supreme Court rules local health boards can ban smoking in private clubs.
9. D. Edward Wells Credit Union corruption scandal.
10. Republican Senator Brian Lees steps down from Senate; is elected Court Clerk.

If polled, readers would probably have come up with a similar list. But, according to site traffic stats, here's what they were actually reading:

1. Belchertown family sues over ugly bride.
2. Friend of Hampden victim held in slaying.
3. "Missing" Ludlow mother turns up in Vegas.
4. UMass student/EMT dies just after aiding at first crash.
5. Monson teen charged in neighbor's death.
Springfield accident kills postal worker.
7. Agawam cookie tragedy prompts warning.
Drugs in Springfield cop's car lead to internal probe.
9. UMass athletic director's 19-year old son killed in 1-91 collision.
10. West Springfield auto dealership raided by IRS.

McDermott chalks up the difference to demographics: MassLive readers are "the community of young people who are so comfortable with the Web and plugged into the cell phone, BlackBerry, instant messaging world that spreads the word and draws non-newspaper readers to the Internet." MassLive blogger Tom Devine chalks it up to intellectual shallowness of the newspaper readership. I'd put a little different spin on it.

Every one of the stories in the second list was local and individual. Not something that affected all of Western Mass--but something that affected one person or one family or one small business. The war in Iraq hits home when some kid who just graduated from Minnechaug Regional High School gets killed in it. A Supreme Court ruling assumes importance when an East Londmeadow mom-and-pop operation goes under because of it. The dangers associated with drugs or alcohol become real when a Palmer teen dies or a Springfield cop gets caught.

People learn from stories, not stats and facts. It doesn't matter if the stories are "true" or fictional, just as long as they're specific. The more specific, the better. We take the elements from stories and file them in our brain attics. Every time we have to make a decision, we shuffle through all that data, comparing and contrasting the situations with our own. The more experiences we've had, or heard about, the more data we've got at our disposal in order to make informed decisions.

I have a feeling it's not only young people with Blackberries who want to read about the ugly bride. Arranged marriages have been taking place--and going wrong in all kinds of interesting ways--for thousands of years in other cultures. Most Americans could care less how people do things someplace deep in the Indian subcontinent. Set the scene in Belchertown, however, and it's a whole different story. That's what it means to bring home the news.

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