“You don’t have to like people, you just have to be fair.”
Q & A with Jane McClure, a Saint Paul Staple
Recently, Goff Public talked with Jane McClure, who has been a print reporter in Saint Paul for the last 25 years. Currently, she writes for Access Press, a disability newspaper in Minnesota, the Monitor, which serves Saint Paul’s Midway, Como and North End neighborhoods, and the Villager, which serves Saint Paul’s Highland neighborhood. The Villager is a bi-monthly publication that has no online presence, offers free doorstop delivery to 50,000 homes, and is showing few signs of slowing down. Below are some of the highlights from our Q & A with Jane McClure.
1) What about journalism has changed the most since you started your career?
I reached my 54th birthday last week, meaning I am probably one of the few Twin Cities working journalists who actually typed stories on a typewriter and then taped them together to rearrange the paragraphs. The biggest change, of course, is the shift to electronic communications. Back in the day, it was easier to have your “scoops” or be first with a story. Now news gets posted in real time, so those firsts are harder to come by.
With the advent of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, anyone can write and call themselves a journalist, without training. That’s a mixed bag, in my opinion. For folks like me, it sometimes feels like we get lumped in with the citizen journalists and those who write opinion and call it news. The First Amendment is a great big tent and all are welcome, but we’ve lost the ability to distinguish who does what.
For readers, electronic communications and social media have meant much, much less dependence on newspapers as a news source. I like electronic communication and would be lost without it, but I still fondly remember the days when people eagerly awaited their newspaper and then would talk about it. It was true validation of one’s work.
2) What about journalism has not changed since you started your career?
I think what has not changed is the need to be able to tell the story, get things right and be as balanced as possible. My first editor was a terrific woman who gave me some great advice I still use every day. One thing she always reminded me is that, “You don’t have to like people, you just have to be fair.” Another is that every story has more than one side, and often more than two sides, and what may be the truth is somewhere in the middle. She and I used to talk about whether or not there is true “objectivity.” A lot of people claim it but we’re all shaped by our backgrounds and circumstances, and unless you came from a test tube, I don’t know how that’s remotely possible. Someone once said that community journalism is the best general education you can receive and I could not agree more. That has not changed.
3) What is the most memorable story you have covered during your career?
Locally, my two most memorable stories were/are the ongoing controversy over (Saint Paul’s) Ayd Mill Road and what should be done with it, and the Gopher State Ethanol plant controversy. Ayd Mill Road continues to be a difficult issue just because the impact of how the road is connected and used affects several neighborhoods in many different ways. I was talking to one of the South Lexington neighbors once and we had a car jump on her lawn. I also lived up the block from then-State Rep. Matt Entenza and I remember the time one of his Villager comments prompted angry people to return their lawn signs en masse one night. I put on my robe and slippers early the next morning to walk down and check it out.
Gopher State Ethanol was a difficult story because of the push and pull over the old brewery. Making ethanol was supposed to be a way to save the jobs there, but the effects on the surrounding neighborhood were not surprising for those of us with farm backgrounds but quite a surprise to most of the city. I remember sitting at a district council meeting and being told that the grain would smell like “baking bread.” I had to wonder about someone’s baking abilities.
In terms of favorite stories, I actually like writing about city and county government. I like the idea that I began writing about Central Corridor when I moved here in 1983, and it’s finally being built. I love writing local history as well. One of my favorites was a history of the “adult entertainment” businesses in the Twin Cities and how neighborhood activists battled those folks.
4) Why do you think people have such a strong connection to the Villager when it’s free?
Offering publications for free is part of the tradition of urban community journalism, especially when you consider that the Villager is the oldest urban neighborhood paper in the country. People read and rely on community papers simply because we’re local, we’re old-school, and we get the job done in terms of bringing readers what they need to know about the community. Being free means it’s at the reader’s doorstep, it’s convenient, and it’s there for you.
We are the one-stop local source of news for about half of the city and that’s why the paper matters to people. We report news and features that other papers don’t, in both the Villager and the Monitor. We’re important as papers and have our places in the community because we know our news subjects and we know our readers. We see them out in the neighborhood, at the grocery store and elsewhere. That is a huge difference between us and the major media, and it is what makes who we are.
And in my experience, that is part of what has changed with media. I see a lot more opinion in stories than I used to, online and in print. And while I’d lay in front of the bulldozers for someone’s right to write what they want to write, the flip side is that it is concerning on some levels for those of us in community journalism.
5) What are your thoughts on usage of social media (Facebook and Twitter) in reporting and journalism?
I have mixed feelings. There’s nothing better for breaking news, but as CNN showed us on the health care ruling, get it right. And I think it can sometimes skew the news or the angle of a story. I think people have to be careful what they post. Take time to check things out before slapping stuff up there.
6) Many reporters come and go, but you have been a mainstay in Saint Paul for 25 years. What has allowed you to remain successful and happy in your career?
Well, maybe I’ve been a mainstay because I really had no other place to go. A lot of really good community journalists get pegged or typecast and we really never get the opportunity to move forward. I would love to have worked at a major daily newspaper, even as a freelancer, but that never happened for me.
On the other hand, I really like what I do. I hope I’ve gotten proficient at it after all of these years. I like urban community journalism. It’s been an amazing experience. I like being able to live in a city, take part in everything a city offers, and really get to know and understand the people I write about.
7) What direction do you see the media taking in the next 5-10 years?
I don’t think newspapers will be gone but there may be fewer of us, alas. I have often said that had I known what would happen to newspapers, I might have chosen another career path. My choice is to follow that direction, which points more toward online work and social media, or get out of the way. My discomfort with it all is, how the heck do we pay for it? People want their online content free and yet writers have to be paid, editors have to be paid, designers have to be paid. We’re not a bunch of elves living in a hollow tree.
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