Last week, while I was on vacation in Los Angeles, swimming in the salty waters at Torrance Beach while the golden glow of the California sun shimmered against Pacific waves, staff here at the Arizona Daily Sun were fielding the bevy of questions, concerns and criticisms of an article that had been published over the weekend: “Day at the Fair: Deep-fried fun and a crazy Freak Out,” written by Sam McManis, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.
As I embarked upon the very menial, very important task of responding to the dozens upon dozens of emails I received while away, whispers from my coworkers clued me in to the apparent ongoing fiasco of which we were still receiving calls and complaints. The article, McManis’ first-person dryly sarcastic account of the 70th annual Coconino County Fair, sparked a serious debate on the distinction between participant-observer journalism and opinion, as well as the role of community newspapers.
Yes, as local reporters we should promote the general welfare of the community, celebrate and help build it up. We should engage the community through thoughtful, honest and interesting stories. Through our stories, we can trace the roots of painting our bodies with ink and highlight local tattoo artists, as in this week’s cover story by MacKenzie Chase. We can shed light on food fare in the heart of Flagstaff, as in Alexandra Wittenberg’s piece on Aspen Deli. We can understand, through Margarita Cruz’ analysis, how Jake Skeets uses history and place to create moving poetry about his life as a Diné man.
Words have meaning. The things we say, the things we put out there—online and in print—have consequence, especially on a hyper-local level where our words reach upward of 8,000 people. Whatever McManis’ intent, and however overblown I believe the response to his article to be, the fact is he affected the community, so much so a high-profile member of Flagstaff City Council gave our newsroom a phone call.
To what extent this individual's phone call affected the Sun, I’m not sure, but an editor’s note was placed at the head of McManis’ article which read, “We have received a lot of feedback on this article -- positive and negative -- and I wanted to take a moment to let you know your voices are being heard. While the story was meant to be a lighthearted look at some of the sights and sounds surrounding one of the busiest weekends in Flagstaff, I think in this case it missed the mark… Our goal is to document events in and around Flagstaff as thoroughly as possible, but an important part of that process is your perspective as readers.”
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I agree and disagree with our editors’ note for a few reasons. Besides feeling we should not have published one at all, it appears to give a non-apology, which many readers wanted and were quick to point out. It also appears to throw McManis to the wolves, referring to his story and his intent, when the Sun should stand behind and defend its writers. After all, the story should have gone through its revision factory for judgment and deeper probing of questionable intent. I agree that we should listen to our audience; it is they who consume and critique our stories. But I don’t believe our stories should necessarily be tailored or edited to fit their best interest or to paint them in the best light. We do not always have to be cheerleaders for our community.
We can celebrate our community while also critiquing it. We can honor a 70-year-old tradition while also poking fun at it. It’s part of what makes this profession so endlessly interesting and intolerably frustrating. And you, the reader, have every right to tell us we’re full of shit.
I used to spend weekends in the same house I visited just a week ago. I’d watch my dad read the Times and grow furious at an article and then turn with delight toward my Grandma Martha and tell her to “Check this out.” Before our former editor Randy Wilson died, he’d refer to some stories as “Hey, Martha” stories, and I’d always think about my dad and grandma’s back and forth over coffee and the newspaper.
If you’re moved by stories—fiction, nonfiction, journalistic or otherwise—I would like to first extend an invitation to experience all the Northern Arizona Book Festival has to offer. (You can read more about the events in Nicole Walker’s column.) I’d also like to invite you to “True Stories through Narrative,” a panel featuring writers from Flagstaff Live! and the Arizona Daily Sun at Uptown Pubhouse, Sunday, Sept. 15. If you’re interested in the stories we tell, the ethical considerations each elicit or have questions about the writing process for hyper-local journalism, come out and participate. We do more than write about the community. We are the community. And we would love to know your stories.