I have a strange affection for newspaper editors. Not the uncomfortable Michael Jackson kind, or the even weirder Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes kind. And certainly not the kind of “affection” most reporters harbor, the kind that makes you daydream about being Russell Crowe and your editor being a hotel clerk.
I understand editors. They are a special breed whose skills are underappreciated. They stay up late, measuring copy in picas and seeing holes in stories that reporters never see (and often never admit to). You don’t think editors matter? Try writing a one column, three-deck headline about global warming sometime.
So I was glad to read this week’s San Francisco Chronicle series, “Alicia’s Story,” about a 23-year-old Chronicle copy editor who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The seven-part series is a personal, sometimes clinical and sometimes emotional account of living a life suddenly and cruelly interrupted.
The story is significant for a few reasons. First, it is an unusually naked view inside life with cancer, not to mention life inside a major metropolitan daily. It’s also bold for this kind of series to run on the front page, allowing for maximum exposure. And let’s face it: Who knew that a copy editor could actually, well you know, write.
The story is something else, too – a bridge between traditional and modern journalism.
Alicia’s Story reads like a long blog post or e-mail to her closest friends. Yet here it is, on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s hard to see where the AP style ends and the freestyle writing of a blogger begins.
Alicia’s Story is one of many examples of the “new” new journalism. With apologies to Tom Wolfe, Alicia’s Story is not stream of consciousness or self-indulgent. It is personal and conversational, but it never loses its grip on the need to report and educate the reader. In a way, Alicia is a “mainstream” journalist practicing citizen journalism.
But not everyone is receptive to this approach – which brings me to the final reason why Alicia’s Story is significant.
Because readers are encouraged to comment about the story online, something I support and would encourage all newspapers to do, we also can see just how ignorant and insensitive some people can be.
I’m not talking about the guy who commented that he hoped Alicia would be dead by day seven – he’s not insensitive as much as he’s just a jerk who, when pushed, would probably say “no, my mom lives with me.”
I’m talking about Peter Sinton, a retired (thank God) Chronicle editor who wrote about the series:
“I’m sorry for Alicia’s medical woes but as a retired Chronicle editor, writer and avid news hound I have to say this is EXCESSIVE. Seven days of three-day spreads is putting this drama way out of proportion. The Sunday paper front page was all soft stuff…there are plenty of even more tragic medical cases outside Fifth and Mission if you were willing to just look.”
As I said earlier, I understand editors. What Mr. Sinton is saying is that the series needed more sources, more balance. Why focus on just one cancer victim when there are so many?
Well, I’ll tell you why: Because Alicia Parlette works for the San Francisco Chronicle and she has cancer. And because of that, thousands of other cancer victims will gain confidence, find courage and muster strength to continue to fight.
Sinton read Alicia’s Story and saw holes; I read it and saw hope – for Alicia, of course, and for the future of journalism, too.