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The Problem With Journalism

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Further Adventures in Journalism: Junipero & Me

Early in my journalism career, I did not specialize. I was part of that species known as a general assignments reporter. A story idea came into the newsroom – press release, public agenda, the publisher’s wife – and an editor farmed it out to one of us to craft into deathless prose. Which would then be hacked into shape by editors to fit the space available.  I did my share of Rotary luncheons, ribbon-cuttings, Chamber luncheons, and birthday fetes for withered old souls who had turned 100 years of age. It was a living.

One Saturday morning, I rolled in hungover and in desperate need of coffee. The weekend city editor,  a genuinely nice guy named Jim, walked over, tossed an assignment card attached to a press release. “We need a news feature out of this,” he said.

This, according to the release, was a meeting of the Sierra Club. Well, it was typed as Serra Club, but Jim has inked in Sierra. Editors do things like that.

“See if you can get some environmental angle or tree-hugger quotes or something,” Jim added helpfully. “About 12 inches.” The meeting started in less than a half hour. Off I went.

I drove to the West Side Catholic church listed in the release, walked into the rectory and was directed to a small room where the meeting was under way. There were four elderly Latino men sitting around a table, and a young priest sitting nearby. They all turned to stare in puzzlement as I walked in, pen and pad ready to take down the details. One man, thin and neat with the tidiest mustache I had ever seen, was in the midst of his presentation. He cleared his throat and asked solemnly, “Has anyone come across any accounts of miracles?”

OK, I was lost. But the conversation continued as the four men bandied about possibilities of a healing or two in California or maybe something odd happening with a cancer patient in Houston. One of the men took copious  notes. I looked at the priest. He looked back and smiled pleasantly.

The discussion of miracles ended and the four then launched into the possibilities of a fund-raiser, which degenerated into a fierce debate over a Fiesta-like carnival or a spaghetti supper. Finally, they stopped. The man with the tidy mustache turned toward me and asked, “Can we help you?”

Well, I said, I’m with the Express-News and just wanted some details on what the local Sierra Club was planning.

The four stared, shaking  their heads, lips pressed tight together. One muttered something under his breath. The priest finally spoke. “This isn’t the Sierra Club,” he said. “It’s the Serra Club.”

Sweet Jesus, I thought, what in the hell is the Serra Club? I said, “Huh?”

The priest explained that this was an organization dedicated to seeking sainthood for Father Junipero Serra. Oh, crap, I thought. “Father who?” I asked.

It appeared to be the right question. The four club members, amazed at my ignorance and intellectual sloth, regaled me with tales of Father Serra, a Franciscan friar who founded a boatload of missions in Spanish California in the late 1700s and died there. Over the years, his fans had sought evidence for his sainthood. I soon knew more about Father Serra and the intricacies and tricky shoals of sainthood in the Catholic Church than I ever desired. By the end of the hour, we all parted with smiles and thank yous and I drove downtown  with thoughts of how satisfying it would be to strangle Jim.

As I walked into the newsroom, Jim looked up from his terminal and asked, “What ya got?”

I allowed that I had crap since he had sent me to a Catholic men’s sainthood rally. “Do you really want a goddamn feature on Sainthood for Junipero?” I asked.

Jim chortled, then said, “Naw. Give me 10 inches on the club meeting.” He then turned back to his editing.

Thus, I learned that everything – and everyone – has a story and that journalism, if there is sufficient space and a slow news day, will find room for it. I also learned that editors are crazy. It is a lesson that remained true forever.

UPDATE: My sole experience with the Serra Club was sometime in the mid-1970s. On September 25, 1988, Father Serra hit the next step toward sainthood when he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Hang in there, Junipero.

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