Friday, December 16, 2016

Weekly miracle at Christmastime, and throughout the year

Three main gifts of story telling exchanged

By Rob Carrigan,
After nearly 50 years of knocking around community newspapers at Christmas time, I think it is time to try and distill some wisdom about them. Or if nothing else, some observations.
There are other things involved, but there are really three main gifts from the community newspaper at Christmastime, and throughout the year.
In a nod to short-form story telling ace William Sydney Porter (known by his pen name O. Henry), and his most-known work, let’s call them “Gift of the Magi.”
Porter, in true form of most ink-slingers, wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine. His wit, characterization, and plot twists were adored by his readers, but often panned by critics. And while there in New York, he wrote 381 short stories.
Almost every one of them had a surprise ending.
Which brings us to the first gift.
A valuable community story offers surprise, week in, and week out. Maybe not a jaw-dropping, stun-them-in-their-seat, blow-soup-out-your-nose revelation — but true tidbits that you can’t find anywhere else. And when you read one religiously, and we are doing our job well, you will receive that gift every week, as you read it, and notice something you were not aware of.
The second gift is harder to articulate, but critical for mission, as well.
I call it local character, and it has to do with providing consistent, recognizable, and true-to-community standards coverage, of the personality you strive to cover. That is, a newspaper’s readership, and market, and universe. Local is the key word. And it requires encouraging participation, inclusion, diverse subject attention, and becoming one, with the community.
The third gift we can offer you at Christmas, and every other week, is the hardest to pull off.
Let’s call it the magic. I know, that might sound a bit presumptuous, that we can perform magic on a regular basis with nothing but word processing, digital images and the organization contest that occurs with the weekly miracle.
But I have seen it happen, when we help get the word out about a family in need, or social problem that bedevils the community, or a hero that rises like cream to help us all.
In 1897, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, a coroner's assistant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia O'Hanlon (1889–1971), whether Santa Claus really existed. O'Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." In so doing, Dr. O'Hanlon had unwittingly given one of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.
I think we can accomplish some of the same kind of magic.
"The Gift of the Magi," Porter’s (O. Henry’s) story about a young couple who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. Unbeknownst to Jim, Della sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's watch; while unbeknownst to Della, Jim sells his own most valuable possession, his watch, to buy jeweled combs for Della's hair. The essential premise of this story has been copied, re-worked, parodied, and otherwise re-told countless times in the century since it was written.
And the take-away? Perhaps value does not reside in the gifts themselves —  but in the exchange.

Photo Information: From top, down. 

1. William Sydney Porter (known by his pen name O. Henry).

2. Virginia O'Hanlon, about 1895. 
3. Francis Pharcellus Church, editor for New York Sun.

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