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The Newspaper: A Voice for the People?

Whenever people have asked me why I want to be a journalist, I have never really been able to come up with an answer. Often, I feel that people look down on me because journalists are typically seen as aggressive and noisy, comparable to vultures. I know that I don't want to be that kind of journalist, but explaining what I want to do is often as difficult as explaining why I want to do it. It is sometimes even difficult to explain to myself where my passion for reporting comes from. It is only by looking over my memories of newspapers and the stories I have read in them that I can begin to realize why I have chosen this particular path for my life.

Considering what the newspaper means to me now, I have surprisingly few memories that involve newspapers from my childhood. In fact, the only real memory that I have before middle school involves losing the newspaper rather than the newspaper itself. When I was ten years old, my mom told me that she was going to have another baby, and in order to afford to have the baby, we were going to have to make some sacrifices. They weren't very large sacrifices, apparently, since the only two things I remember giving up are bottled water and The New York Times. We probably had to give up some other things since babies cost a lot more than bottled water and The New York Times put together, but I don't know what they were. For a while I resented my sister for making us give up these luxury items, even though the items themselves were of very little value to me at the time. Bottled water was cool because of the neat machine it came in, but other than that not worth much, and The New York Times didn't even have comics to look at so it was no good. Mostly it was for my parents that I resented my sister because they really seemed to care about the loss.

Even after we gave up The New York Times, we continued to get the San Francisco Chronicle , and when I was in eighth grade, I started to read it. There were three sections I read religiously -- Dear Abby, the comics and a column by my friend's mother. The rest of the newspaper I ignored just as religiously as I read these parts. What drew me to these sections of the newspaper was not the world news they contained or even their ability to make me laugh, but rather the glimpse into another person's life these sections supplied. The comics I liked -- "For Better or For Worse," "Cathy" and "Luann" -- were those that told the story of a family or a person. Dear Abby allowed me to know about other people's problems and challenges. The column by my friend's mother was by far my favorite. It came out only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I never missed it. If I was out of town on one of these days, I would hunt through the old newspapers in order to find the column I had missed. I continued to read her column throughout high school as well. The reason I was so interested in this column was not only because the column was a personal one that allowed me a view of another person's world, but because I knew the columnist's daughter. She was a student in my middle school and later my high school, and, for a while, she was dating the guy I had a crush on. Reading this column allowed me to find out things about my friend that I never would have known otherwise. I knew that her mother had to pay her every time she wanted to use her name in the paper. I also knew that she didn't get along with her step-father and that eventually she moved in with her biological father in Oakland. Looking back, it seems like this was all a kind of voyeurism, but a legal one because these people had willingly put their lives in the newspaper for everyone to see.

During my senior year of high school, I took my first journalism class. During the class, our teacher, Mr. Hammer, required that we read the world news and Bay Area sections of the newspaper every day. On Fridays, he would give us quizzes on what had happened that week. We could choose if we wanted to have a quiz on The San Francisco Chronicle or The San Francisco Examiner, and we had to answer four out of five questions correctly. I suppose that it's kind of sad that I had to be forced into reading the newspaper, but the habit that developed is something I thank Mr. Hammer for. Even during this time, the stories that interested me most were the stories about average people's lives. I'm sure that a lot happened during the fall of 1993, but the story that I remember is the one about how a woman in Russia found a dead animal in her bedroom.

When I started working on The MacWeekly, the Macalester college newspaper, during my freshman year of college, what I loved about the newspaper still hadn't changed. The stories that I chose to write were always the stories about people. The first story I wrote for the paper was a story about Tom Gjelten, a reporter for National Public Radio, who had come to our school to promote his book. What fascinated me was not the fact that he had come to our school, but the stories that he told about the strength and courage of the people of Serajevo, the area on which he reported during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Later, I started to cover news stories and eventually became the news editor on the paper, but I always tried to save time for writing about what really interested me, stories about people. The last story I wrote for the paper before leaving for Spain was a sports feature focused on the director of intramural and club sports.

During my sophomore year, I started to work as a media relations assistant in the public relations office at my school. One of my jobs was to read the newspaper everyday and look for stories about Macalester. I loved this job because it meant that I was getting paid to read the newspaper. It also meant that I didn't have to buy the newspaper for myself everyday. I always stretched out the time, reading every article that could possibly have anything to do with our school, especially if they were stories about ordinary people. One story that sticks in my mind even today is about two brothers who chose to spend their lives writing books about scooters. This story captured my attention because of its focus on this unusual aspect of the lives of some ordinary people.

Sometime during this all, I started to really worship the newspaper. It is hard to place a date on this because feelings grow over time, but this was when I decided that I wanted to be a journalist as well. I do remember, however, when someone first put into words what I loved about the newspaper. In a political science class called Political Development, I had to read part of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In the book, Tocqueville has one small paragraph that talks about the need for newspapers in a functioning democracy. He says that newspapers were needed to serve as a voice for the oppressed for they were the only method through which an ordinary person could have his message made known to society as a whole. It was only a couple of lines, but they really struck me. While now I don't remember the exact words he used, at the time I copied them out of the book and tacked them to the wall above my bed. They expressed the exact sentiments I had about newspapers.

From the time I started reading newspapers in eighth grade until the end of my sophomore year of college, I loved them. I honestly saw them very much as flawless and I was endlessly defending the newspaper to people who said that they were too affected by advertisers, etc. It was not until very recently when I began to become disillusioned myself with newspapers and, once again, it was because of a class that these feelings started to surface. During the fall semester of my junior year of college, I took a class called Introduction to Mass Communication. During the class, we were forced to really examine various forms of media and criticize them. One assignment asked us to look at an article from The New York Times and an article from The St. Paul Pioneer Press and examine the differences between them. I chose to look at two articles about the welfare reform bill that had recently passed in the Senate. What struck me about the two articles was their similarity. The New York Times article was longer, had more detail and more sources, but other than that the stories were exactly the same and neither of them fulfilled the purpose which Tocqueville said was the purpose of the newspaper in a democratic society. Both articles only quoted sources from within the political realm -- Senators, the President and maybe one lobbyist. Neither article really explained what the effect of the bill would be on people who were on welfare, and neither gave any sort of voice to the oppressed. This was the first time I really began to realize that the newspaper wasn't functioning the way it should. Yes, newspapers do have stories about ordinary people, but rarely do they tell the story of the lives of the people who actually need their stories to be told. For the same reason that I had always loved the newspaper, I began to be disillusioned with it.

Starting from eight grade and lasting until the present, the same stories have always drawn me to newspapers. I have always been intrigued by stories which explored the personal lives of ordinary people. Beginning with comics and my friend's mother's column, I realized that what I loved about the newspaper was it's ability to let the world know about the lives of the individuals in society. It was my interest in these stories which first made me want to become a journalist. Later, it was my interest in these stories that made me realize what was wrong with newspapers. Today, I am determined to better the newspaper. I firmly believe that the newspaper should and can be a voice for the people, but only if it changes the way it looks at news. The real news, in my mind, is always what happens to the people. Throughout my life, newspapers have affected me in many ways. My love for these types of stories has led me to choose a specific career, but, more importantly, they have also helped me to realize what kind of journalist I want to be.

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