College Corner with Michael Harrington

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Michael Harrington is a copy editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer who has been taking classes and meting with students to talk about writing and journalism at Swarthmore this semester through the Steve Klock Fellowship cosponsored by the Inquirer, the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore. We’ve enjoyed talking to him about journalism at the Daily Gazette, and we thought you might enjoy reading his opinions as well.

DG: What is the Klock Fellowship, and why did you receive it?

MH: The Klock Fellowship is named after Steve Klock, who was a well-liked and very capable copy-editor at the Inquirer who died of cancer in 2000. It lasts one semester and alternates between Swarthmore and Penn. The Klock Fellows take classes that will contribute to our work as copy-editors… since almost anything will contribute to the work of a copy-editor, it’s kind of wide-ranging as to what you can take.

I’ve been a copy editor at the Inquirer since the fall of 2001, and I felt like it was a good time to take a break… the opportunity arose, so I applied for it and I got it. We’d just been through a bruising round of labor negotiations… things are getting calmer at the paper now, but it was a good time to take a break.

DG: What classes are you auditing[taking]?

MH: I’m taking Japanese Contemporary Media with William Gardner, Power and Authority in Modern Islam with Tariq al-Jamil, Statistical Thinking with Phil Iverson, and I’m also taking Aikido just for fun… I’ve banged up my knees, but it’s been fun. I wanted to know more about Statistics, because we do a lot with stats in the newspaper business. When I went to the Summer Institute for Copy Editors at the University of North Carolina in 2005… the great newspaper theorist Phil Meyer presented a session that included the example of a story that a major newspaper got wrong because they didn’t read the statistics right on intelligence testing in the military. They confused 50 percent and 50th percentile. It chilled me, because the copy desk is the last line of defense against those kinds of mistakes. So, the Stat class has really been a big help.

Islam is a subject that’s been central to our profession and will continue to be for a long time, and the more I know about that the better off I am. … Both Prof. al-Jamil and Prof. Everson have taken very complex subjects and made them more comprehensible.

The Japanese Media class was more for fun, it’s a subject I’ve been interested in personally, but that’s also been an eye-opener. The level of discourse is far beyond anything I would imagine from undergrads–it’s more like a graduate course–and Prof. Gardener has taking a wide-ranging approach in his presentation.

DG: What else have you been doing at Swarthmore?

MH: One thing I really enjoyed was meeting with the students to talk about writing… I’ve tried to make myself available to any student at Swarthmore, a few have taken me up on that, and it’s been fun. The level of student journalism has also been very interesting to me… between the Phoenix and the Daily Gazette you’re doing two different things, one of which is very familiar to me and one of which is not. In all cases, people have been really welcoming to me… it’s been a warm and welcoming place.

DG: What’s surprised you about Swarthmore?

MH: Lately I have been feeling like I parachuted into a different culture, it’s been a lot to take in. I’m struck by the high regard everyone has for each other and how busy everyone is, but there’s also aspects I haven’t entirely synthesized yet. Part of it is the nature of the fellowship. I’m a tourist. But as a newspaper man, I’m always trying to observe things and figure them out.

DG: What’s different about our culture specifically?

MH: An almost willful avoidance of conflict is something I’ve been kind of pondering since I first got here. … People are very polite and you have a wonderful environment, I think anything that would threaten that would be a shame, but I wonder if there’s a way in which conflict could be approached that could continue with that same kind of regard.

A lot of people have told me it’s a Quaker thing. I expected a higher level of passion in the classroom discussions… there’s been a lot of issues raised and I’d expect more passion. I find that people say things and intead of a direct challenge coming back it goes by the wayside. Scholarship and journalism by their nature are going to offend people. We question things. That’s annoying. It’s something that you do want to be careful of. You want to make sure you have some regard for people… but I think sometime it’s important to annoy or offend people to create a dialogue. Conflict is going to occur and how you you resolve those conflicts is as much a part of human experience as getting along. If you make getting along the point, you’re going to lose a part of human experience that might be valuable, even if it’s not always comfortable.

One thing I’m really struck by is… I think you guys do really good journalism here, but I think that that level of sensitivity to offense or to conflict is problematic. Like I said, as journalists you’re going to offend people… people will read their own biases and their own sensitivities into everything. It’s something we try to be careful of… but you can’t always do it, it’s as true for the Daily Gazette as the Inquirer. It seems as if there’s a hyper-civility on this campus… that adds an extra layer of difficulty to what you guys do.

A college campus is always going to be an experimental community and that’s what makes it great… it’s a place where you can explore things in a way you might not be able to do in the wider culture. Such hyper-civility inhibits the questioning that scholars, and journalists, need to do. It’s less rough-and-tumble here. But on the other hand I think because the world is rough-and-tumble… you don’t want to get away from that.

DG: What do you think about the future of journalism?

MH: There’s a gloomy sense, mostly in newsrooms, that newspapers are going away, that news organizations are dinosaurs trudging off into the swamps never to be heard from again… I think it’s just the methods of delivery that are changing. That’s why I’m really interested in the Daily Gazette and how you work. I think the print paper is going to end. Phil Meyer thinks it will happen in the next twenty years, nobody really knows. But I don’t think journalism is going to end any time soon. The format is just going to change. The Daily Gazette is part of that change.

But the process and approach of journalism is not going to change. What we do is form a narrative of what the world is like right now… people want to know about it, because people want to know what’s going on in the world. A reader will read an article about something that has nothing to do with them, because they want a picture of their world and community, and there’s a lot of different ways now in which you can form that picture. The example I use is a story I was following out of England earlier this year… on a Big Brother-like show, there was a racially-tinged fight between a English woman known for being on reality shows and a Bollywood star. It sparked an international incident between England and India. I followed that story through print magazines and newspapers, I followed it through YouTube, I followed it through the Internet, I followed it through Wikipedia … I was able to form a coherent picture of what was going on, and much quicker than I would back in the day when all you had was newspapers and static photographs. I heard about something and was curious about it. I wanted to find out more and used all the means at my disposal… none of that means that journalism is going to go away, we journalists just have to adapt.

DG: How is the Inquirer adapting to the new climate?

MH: The Inquirer is actually set up very well right now to take advantage of changes. We have local ownership that is very committed to the product and to expanding the audience however we can… I have no idea what the ownership’s plans are, but I can see a time very soon where we deliver the news in a number of different ways: through the print paper, the Internet, people having news shot into their Blackberries, even a reusable e-paper, where you can download the news and then fold it away. The solution to the problem of newspapers is going to be that… who knows, some people may even want an electrode in their head to get the news — but as a journalist you can’t be too worried about that, because they’re still going to get “Someone went some place, saw something, and reported on it.” The approach to objectivity and fidelity to the truth is going to stay the same.

DG: How do you think your Fellowship will affect your work back at the newspaper?

MH: For one thing, both the Statistics and the Islam course have had a huge effect on how I’m going to approach stories in the future… especially for Islam, a complex subject which we tend to approach very simplistically. The Japanese Media class has influenced my thinking about what changes may be coming. But I don’t know yet exactly how it will affect my work … you should ask me that question later in the year. I know that everything I’ve done here is going to help me, but I don’t know how just yet.

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