In early April 1970, I walked into the newsroom of my hometown newspaper and asked the editor if he knew anyone at the state department of natural resources. I’d just received my undergraduate degree in geology. I could do that kind of work for a while before I returned to university for master’s and doctoral degrees and to eventually live happily in Alaska as its state geologist.
I walked out of that newsroom as a journalist. (I lied about being able to type.) The editor needed another sportswriter but couldn’t hire one full time. He needed an environmental writer (the first Earth Day was two weeks away) but he couldn’t hire a full-time one.
I could do both, he judged. He hired me. I wrote about Sen. Gaylord Perry’s first teach-in on April 22. For the next six weeks, I wrote “green” and follow-up Earth Day stories in the afternoon, and local sports in the evening.
But come June, the editor asked for fewer “green” stories and more sports stories. By July, I’d more or less become a full-time sports writer.
In March 1975, five years later, I was asked to produce a slew of Earth Day anniversary stories. Then, a few weeks after Earth Day, no more stories. Ditto 10 years later and 15 years later.
That introduced me to anniversary journalism. I witnessed that with the rise of fall of Earth stories every five years in my newspaper and many, many others.
I grew to detest anniversary journalism. Why every five years? Why not four? Or six? Some are annual, such as the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. I grew tired of the JFK stories highlighting “where were you when Kennedy was shot” angles. (I rebelled against those stories and their less-than-meaningful content.)
A few days ago, however, I took part in anniversary journalism of the participatory kind (which I hate even more). S&R celebrated its 10th anniversary, and I wrote a post acknowledging what writing for S&R for so long has been like.)
But it prompted me to reflect: Why the persistent distaste for anniversary journalism?
That’s a two-part question: Do I hate anniversaries (I don’t have birthdays anymore; this year I celebrated the 32nd anniversary of my 39th birthday), or do I detest journalism about anniversaries?
Consider the passage through life. Are there days and events that seep into the soul, that resonate somehow and permeate that which makes you, well, you? Marriage to a loved one. Births of children. Three decades at the same job. We all stop to reflect on New Year’s Day, don’t we? Hence the resolutions?
I watched Mercury, Apollo, and space shuttle launches with my mom. Then Challenger exploded, and 11:33 a.m. on January 28, 1986, became an anniversary. I think of that sad event every year on that day.
Anniversaries can bring joy, sadness, ambition, and reflection. That’s what journalism about anniversaries ought to do — show us that meaning, that human experience.
So maybe I’ll back off my criticism of anniversary journalism.
Then again, in three years, Earth Day will be … 50 years old. In 2020. An election year. President Donald presumably will be seeking another term. The repercussions of his budget and regulation cuts on the EPA and its member agencies will be fodder for Earth Day political as well as anniversary stories.
Oh, I can’t wait … Meanwhile, if you’re interested, Earth Day 2017 is tomorrow. Maybe someone’s writing about – even if it isn’t a five-year anniversary.
I used to not only do this sort of thing, I felt obligated. Take Columbine, for instance. I mean, I had things to say, but the only reason I wrote a lot of it was because I felt like I HAD to.
No more of that. I hear where you’re coming from and I hope others feel the obligation I once did, because somebody needs to mark the passage of time…