Is journalism personal?

My favorite recent Edhat is Gate B, posted August 31st. It begins,

  Those of you who are planning to attend Oprah’s Obama Bash might have heard that there won’t be valet parking in front of Oprah’s vacation home in Montecito. Instead, you will need to go eight miles away to Gate B of the Earl Warren Showgrounds and catch a shuttle bus to the big event. One might conclude from it’s second letter status that Gate B — like Plan B — is some sort of secret side entrance to The Showgrounds. But that simply is not true. Gate B is actually the main entrance. You get to it from Calle Real, the frontage road for THE 101 freeway.
  Note: Here in Santa Barbara as in the rest of Southern California, we refer to freeways with the definite participle “the” – it’s how we talk and if you are visiting our community for the first time and want to fit in, you should try it too.

Today’s is good too, though I can’t find the link to it. Here’s an excerpt:

  If you have a question about Santa Barbara, the person to ask is Brown Squared. On Wednesday he was the only Edhat subscriber who knew that the WWII picture was taken at the west end of the East Beach parking lot near the intersection of Cabrillo and Milpas. And, not only did he know where it was, he also knew what it was. Furthermore, when we asked him for more information — stuff he didn’t know about it or wasn’t 100% sure of — he found out and emailed us the answers faster than a Chocolate Lab eats cheese.
  He was certainly a lot more useful than the Gas Company. The same people who, one day long ago, put us on hold and left us there to die, were unable to tell us anything – even after 3 hours and 3 phone calls. Why you ask, should the Gas Company have been able to help? Well, after all it is their phallic-symbol shaped air vent that’s shown in the picture. And yes, for those of you who are paying attention, this is the second time in three weeks that the WWII was a phallic symbol. Maybe Ed has some issues.
  But, as we said, we don’t need no stinking gas company to give us the scoop. We have Brown Squared. Yesterday he told the dedicated staff of that the vent is a breather for the utility “vault” underneath the sidewalk there. Apparently there is a very large gas pipe hiding underground, underneath the palm trees, along the waterfront.

So I had coffee on Thursday with Peter Sklar, the chief hat-wearer of Edhat. We talked about what news is, and about whether what we still call newspaper journalism should be strictly built around our old notions of news as “content” that gets authored by authorities and distributed by media. Peter’s an authority on a lot of stuff (he’s a technologist with an advanced math degree, for example); but that’s not what makes Edhat work. It’s something much more personal and engaging than that. There is nothing else quite like Edhat. It is not the product of pro formalities. It’s a labor of love to some degree, but the love flows back in asymmetrical abundance. And that’s the important part.

I was at a cocktail party last night, at the opening of the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival, talking with Peter and his wife, when mayor Marty Blum came up and joined the conversation. It was clear she loves Edhat, as do many other people in town, most of whom don’t know who Peter is because he’s a shy guy and prefers to let the invisible Ed take the lead. I thought to myself, Why does Marty love Edhat? Is that just because the News-Press pounds Marty like tough meat every chance they get? Is it because Edhat provides a reliably positive (as well as delightfully ironic) source of interesting items about Santa Barbara? Both those might be true, but there’s a special relationship there, and not just for Marty.

The word “loyalty” doesn’t cover what goes on between readers and Edhat. It’s something more. I’d say the same goes for columnists with the Independent, the Daily Sound and various blogs, including (perhaps especially) Craig Smith’s. In a way this is no different than what Herb Caen had going at the San Francisco Chronicle for a thousand years, and that Barney Brantingham had for forty-six years at the News-Press and now enjoys at the Independent. (As does Starshine Roshell and other relocated members of the News-Press diaspora.) These are not just columnists, but writers who depend utterly on their readers.

So, one more question for Peter, the other panelists, and readers at the panel: Is this kind of highly personal engagement with readers the foundation we need for the future of newspapers (or whatever succeeds them)? To unpack that a bit, columnists have always been an essential but secondary ingredient in the newspaper recipe. Is it possible that they are now the primary ingredient?

Back in the 1960s, Tom Wolfe coined the term “New Journalism”, and applied it to engaged writers like himself, who waded deeply into a subject and in some cases became primary figures in the stories they wrote about. (The most extreme example was Hunter S. Thompson, who branded his new form gonzo.)

Could it be that New Journalism is finally arriving?

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