|May 20, 2013 • VOL. 51, NO. 10 • Oakland, CA|
| Three Voice editors reflect on challenges
Developing lay people
Making news relevant
Editor, December 1979 to May 1986
In the early 1980s while editor of The Voice, I wrote a brief reflection on the life and death of a tadpole that my children had collected from a pond on the Redemptorists' campus on Golf Links Road in east Oakland. In retrospect, it highlights perhaps the core challenge of my time at the newspaper.
Over a matter of days the tadpole had morphed before our eyes into a tiny, lovely, emerald green frog.
The kids decorated its Tupperware swamp with rocks and marbles. But, the frog died. Heather, Jon, Joe and Mike were devastated. We held a funeral using a matchbox as a coffin. We read aloud from Genesis. The event spoke of the holy in the every day, in the ordinary, in the eyes of children.
No false modesty: The tadpole reflection was no great shakes. However, to my utter surprise it created one of the most extensive reader reactions to anything I recall authoring, editing or assigning.
More feedback and readership, I think, than what I still judge to have been important and in-depth reports and analysis of what the United States was doing in Central America at that time. More than our interviews with high-octane theologians from Hans Kung and Sandra Schneiders to Edward Schillebeeckx and Gustavo Gutiérrez. More than our coverage of the nuclear threats and of widespread famine. (Might you remember the extensive amount of money donated by readers through The Voice for famine relief?)
The Voice is a platform for reporting and for exchange on world, regional and local events. But, my friends, there is no doubt in my mind that what happens in family, in school, in neighborhood and in parish is what moves most of us most of the time.
The long success of Jim Dempsey's "salad bowl" column, Around the Diocese, speaks to that. We would receive large numbers of "small" news items — anniversaries, car washes, etc. — for which we simply did not have space. Jim, however, would knit handfuls of these into an incredibly readable column with tons of names, dates and facts. Readership evaluations and anecdotal feedback consistently told us Jim's column ranked right there with letters to the editor as the places Voice readers went most often: family, school, neighborhood, parish.
Thus, the fundamental challenge for myself and our editorial staff was to make the often less personal broad issues — justice, immigration, foreign policy, church doctrinal tensions and so on — take on a tangibility for our readers' lives. Reporting on the murders of four churchwomen by El Salvadoran National Guardsmen in December 1980, for example, is one thing. Helping that story take on compelling meaning in and for the lives of readers is another.
Editor, May 1986 to December 2010
Looking back on my greatest challenges as Voice editor, the first things that came to mind were the 1989 earthquake (which occurred while I was on a press tour in Jerusalem) and the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 (days after I returned to work after cancer treatment). Yes, these disasters required quick and thorough reporting during somewhat trying circumstances. But coverage of such news is what journalists do.
The far greater challenge for me was how to remain faithful in every edition to the underlying principles of Catholic journalism, drawn from three documents: the Vatican II Decree on the Means of Social Communication (1963), the 1971 Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication, and the Catholic Press Association's document, Freedom and Responsibility in the Catholic Press.
This meant finding ways to report fully, fairly and accurately on events in the Oakland diocese and the global Church, including accounts that addressed weaknesses as well as strengths. I strongly believe that parishioners prefer the truth, even when it is disturbing.
It meant fostering a thoughtful dialog on issues, especially through the Readers' Forum, which, according to our periodic readership surveys, was always the best read page of the paper. Here was the opportunity for parishioners to listen to the voices of their fellow Catholics whose opinions or insights might differ strongly from their own. Fortunately, there was always a variety of submissions to fill the page.
It meant selecting stories and photos that reflected both the unity and diversity in the diocese, working hard to achieve balance in terms of men/women, ages, ethnicities, and theological perspectives, and to be aware of the danger of being too Oakland-centric.
It meant confronting the possibility of self-censorship out of fear of criticism or retribution. Certainly there were times when irate readers and unhappy pastors called to complain about some story we had published. Only once did I get a death threat.
In looking back over my tenure, I wish I'd had more courage, knowledge and skill to report on clergy sex abuse, especially in the early days of the crisis. I wish, too, that I had dug deeper into the theological divide that emerged after Vatican II to help readers achieve a fuller understanding of the council's teachings.
My ultimate challenge was how to contribute to the common good of the people of the Oakland Diocese while being neither institutional cheerleader nor skeptical outsider.
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