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Ask not for whom the phone rings

I was pulling a Saturday shift not long ago when an obvious truth finallysank in:

Telephones have ruined journalism.

It was a normal Saturday, which means there's a large need to gathernews copy for the Sunday paper and not much in my world of business to cover.It was also a pleasant, sunny summer day; a perfect day to get out of theoffice and away from the phone.

I went to a radio-controlled air show at Agate Lake, where the firstwhiff of Glo-Fuel rekindled my lifetime fascination with model airplanes.I got to watch a dandy variety of aircraft in action while I chatted withairplane enthusiasts.

On the way back, I saw some folks gathering at Totally Texas. I pulledoff the road and learned a bunch about Southern Oregon branding irons andlistened in as folks told stories about old times in Frenchglen.

Naturally, I stopped for a sausage dog at Costco. I sat down with strangersat an outdoor table and heard a detective explain some insightful thingsabout sex crimes and appropriate punishments.

It was one of those enriching and informative days that makes me gladI'm a journalist. It was a day of chance encounters.

I concluded this was different from my normal workdays because I didn'tuse the telephone. I wasn't chained to my desk waiting for returned calls.

Reporters soon learn that you have to get out of the office to find outwhat's happening, particularly if there are no windows where you work. ButI always perceived the telephone as a tool to make newsgathering fasterand more effective.

No more. I think telephones have an insidious limiting effect on reporters.They virtually eliminate the chance encounter. I pick out who I'll call;people call me when they want to talk to the business reporter.

In time, reporters get familiar with good sources. When news breaks,they round up the usual suspects. If you read the paper, you know who Imean; we all do it.

This stacks the news. We tend to report things that show up on agendas,cop logs and police scanners, court dockets, building permit rosters. Orwe chase down stories from tips, usually passed along by the friends andthe usual suspects.

Good reporters will get out to do legwork when they aren't harnessedto the desk. Too much of the walking, as a practical matter, is done withour fingers.

Come to think of it, cars aren't far behind the telephone when it comesto throttling the flow of news. In the isolation of our cars, we aren'tencountering people by chance on sidewalks, much less on buses or streetcars.We don't know what people are talking about if all we hear is the radioor, even worse, cassettes.

About a week after I started thinking about this concept of isolation,it was driven home by the death of the Princess of Wales.

Di is certainly one of the most talked-about people in the world -- she'sbeen on the cover of People magazine more than 40 times.

But before she died, I can't recall being involved in a single conversationwith anyone about Di, not ever. Beyond a glancing reference, I can't everremember hearing people talk about Di.

Big deal? Sure it is. When we make news judgments, we constantly askwho cares? and what difference does it make?

If one of the most talked-about people in the world can die in a tragicaccident and I don't know who cares, I suspect something is terribly wrong.Reporters aren't supposed to be that far out of the loop.

I did some fast research in our Mail Tribune archives and discoverednot a single locally written article in the past five years mentioned Di-- until her death.

That's not surprising, considering the British royal family isn't a RogueValley news beat. But you'd think that somebody, somewhere around here wouldhave dropped her name in a story.

I could be guessing wrong. It's possible Di didn't generate a whole lotof interest here in Southern Oregon. Either way, I feel guilty for not knowing.

It's not an issue of what's on my beat -- or even that I cared one wayor another about Di. I truly believe reporters should be part of the communitywhere they live. I believe newspapers would be far more in tune with thereaders they serve without the isolation of electronic devices.

Beyond that, I don't think it's about serving readers as much as it'sabout being part of humanity.

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