One of the best things about operating a well-read community newspaper is that doors are opened to us as “reporters” that might stay closed to us as “regular guys.”
For example, if “regular guy” Rick Wamre called up RISD superintendent Vernon Johnson to talk with him for an hour about the state of our neighborhood’s schools, chances are excellent that Johnson would have trouble fitting me into his schedule.
Now, I’m sure his assistants would be very accommodating, and I’d probably wind up talking with some very knowledgeable, very junior administrator.
But sometimes, the junior guys simply don’t have the answers to the questions we’d like to ask.
All of this doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t interested in my concerns as a “regular guy.” It’s just that one man simply does not have enough time to run a school system and talk individually with thousands of residents about their concerns.
“Reporters” and newspapers make their money by filling that gap.
After all, “reporters” are supposed to be nothing more than “regular guys” who have the opportunity to ask questions to the right people. As part of a typically formatted interview, the “reporter” asks a variety of questions, notes the answers, and then returns to the office to condense everything that has been said into the newspaper equivalent of a 30-second TV news segment.
There’s nothing wrong with this technique, of course, and it’s actually a vital part of our lives. For example, if we had to read a verbatim transcription of every single interview conducted by a “reporter” for every single news story published in the Morning News, there wouldn’t be enough time to watch the TV news and wash the clothes and pay the bills and handle all of life’s other exciting activities.
But every once in a while, it’s important to acknowledge that citizens are capable of making their own judgments about important issues when we’re given a chance to sit down and really take the measure of a leader in our community.
That’s why I like the format of our annual Advocate Interview, which is sponsored this year by our neighborhood Whole Foods Markets.
During the hour-long interview, we ask what we hope are “regular guy” questions, Johnson answers the questions, and everything that everyone says (with minor editing to facilitate clarification) is published verbatim.
With this format, everyone who reads the interview can be a “reporter,” and everyone can independently interpret Johnson’s comments.
Our intent is simply to give the man a chance to express himself in his own words about his job.
The only drawback to this format is that, as a reader, you’ll have to dedicate some time to wade through the entire interview to see what Johnson has to say. That means you’ll need a half-hour or so to read this interview – about the length of time necessary to watch an episode of “Wheel of Fortune.”
But when you’re finished, you’ll have a better understanding of the man who is running our school district. And that should be worth missing Pat and Vanna for just one day, shouldn’t it?
Because this type of interview runs a bit against the grain of traditional journalism, we’d like to hear your comments about the format, Johnson’s comments or our schools. If this type of story doesn’t interest you, send us a letter and let us know why; if you think it’s a great idea, let us know that, too.
As an incentive, we’ll send a free, 100-percent-cotton, Advocate T-shirt to everyone who sends us a letter about the Advocate Interview.
We think we’ve stumbled onto something unique and useful with this format. But if it doesn’t pass the “regular guy” test, there’s always that junior administrator just waiting to answer our questions.