Publisher's note: As you have doubtless noticed, Crosscut's major Membership Drive of the year is now on. I've asked some of the writers and staffers to explain their connection with this public enterprise, their backgrounds, and what they like about Crosscut. Today's scribe is Eric Scigliano, who has recently joined Crosscut as a writer and editor, and who has been a friend and admired colleague going back several decades.
Before Eric takes the microphone, a few formalities. Memberships are tax-deductible (Crosscut is a nonprofit enterprise), begin at $35 a year, and bring numerous benefits such as parties, ticket discounts, and Members-come-free events. To nudge you into donating, we give away daily prizes from drawings. Winners of Monday's drawing, each getting a $25 gift certificate at Elliott Bay Books, are Brad Bagshaw of Seattle and Marjorie McKay of Bellevue. The Tuesday drawing will be for a pair of tickets to the new show of the Art of Asia, Luminous, opening at Seattle Art Museum on Oct. 13. The weekly drawing is for a new Kindle; the grand prize drawing will be for an iPad2. Donors at $75 level and above get a new Crosscut tote bag.
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Here’s a classic bit of old-time newspaper cynicism: If you can write and report but can’t think, you become a reporter. If you write and think but can’t report, you’ll be an editorial writer. If all you can do is write, they’ll make you a columnist. And if you can’t do any of the above, you get to be editor.
Unfair to editors, perhaps, but it points up one of the very great things about writing, and reporting, and even trying to think for Crosscut. (I hope you’ll pardon my talking first about what it’s like to write for the site, rather than to read it. After reading, admiring, and envying Crosscut for years, I just started writing for it a few months ago, so I’m still caught up in the thrill of a new relationship.)
At Crosscut, these three pursuits are not seen as incompatible or, at best, awkward companions, but rather as essential and complementary tools in the pursuit of an abiding goal: to understand the place and times we live in. That goal is hardly exclusive to Crosscut; it drives all journalism, or all good journalism. And thinking, writing, and reporting have found many homes to cohabitate in, including the Seattle Weekly, which I wrote for and occasionally helped to edit through most of the 1980s and 1990s — a predecessor and ancestor of today’s Crosscut. Then it could make a fair claim to being the best forum in town for all three of those endeavors and, affirming that claim, readers plunked down 75 cents, the price of a cheap beer or expensive coffee, for it.
Publications change and many go, becoming roadkill on the marketing highway or compost in the garden of ideas. But through all the cycles of technological disruption, media succession, and mass distraction, the essential need and essential goal remain, never fully achieved or entirely forgotten: to understand the place and times we live in. To be in a community of writers, editors, and readers ardently dedicated to that goal feels at once like coming home and like hitting the trail again.
In a couple of ways, however, writing for Crosscut is better than writing for nearly all the publications I worked for or contributed to back in the print years. That’s because it’s free, as much as a medium can be, of two terrible publishing constraints: time and commerce.
Take it from me; I’ve written for just about every type of ink that’s rolled off the presses. Weekly papers and dailies ranging from The New York Times to Port Angeles’s Daily News. Monthlies, quarterlies, zines, and scholarly journals. Regional and national book publishers. Magazines dedicated to “lifestyle,” magazines dedicated to matters that matter, and magazines trying uneasily to balance the two.
This work had its satisfactions. Two stories I wrote for the Weekly led to the passage of much-needed state laws, one to protect the victims of would-be stalkers and the other the customers of tow companies. (What’s the difference, you may ask.) I won a few journalism awards that sit just below the Pulitzers on the prestige scale, which means nobody outside the business has ever heard of them. I traveled to the islands of Sri Lanka, Orkney, and the Pribilofs — pursuing stories on endangered elephants, wave energy, and Aleut sealers, respectively — and many, many continental spots in between.
Always there was a time lag and an anxious calculation: How will what you say today hold up tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year, in two months or two years, when it finally comes off the printing press?
Online publishing doesn’t entirely eliminate that lag; there’s still the pause for formatting, editing, plotting a balanced sequence of articles. But it can compress it to a matter of hours, sometimes minutes. Again and again at the Weekly we would defer good ideas or important subjects because we feared they’d be stale or overtaken by events by the time we could publish — or watch as the dailies landed on stories we had in next week’s edition, and beat us to the street with them.
The web levels the field. You no longer need the resources of a daily paper to write about events quickly while aspiring to depth. You can get an article edited and posted and get a thoughtful online critique from readers in the time we’d spend making it fit on the page at the spiffy magazine where I worked for the last part of the last decade.
That removes one muffling filter between event, writer, and readers. And Crosscut, together with other nonprofit media, cuts through another, more corrosive and suffocating constraint: the insidious influence of advertising. In established publications that influence rarely takes the form of outright whoring, of doing an article, praising a restaurant, or featuring a new condo development in exchange for an ad. It’s more diffuse and generic: Publishers provide “advertising-friendly environments,” celebrations of the industry or service to whose providers they sell ads: Best Doctors and Best Cocktails, Best Burgers and Desserts and Best Spas (to lose weight at), Best Places to Live and Best Places to Get Away. Newspapers run Saturday automobile sections that drool over horsepower and handling and blissfully ignore the effects of auto dependency on our safety, cities, community life, and climate.
At the magazine, we proposed to be both honest and safely upbeat by only reviewing restaurants we liked — and then faced the pressure to find something positive to say about high-profile establishments.
Of course readers are complicit in this; mass distraction is a two-way street. But not all readers. Some, miraculum mirabilis, still care about more than whatever will next tickle their bellies, upgrade their wardrobes and décor, or reassure them of their status and stylishness. And they — you, we — are what make Crosscut the redoubt it is in the battle against such distraction. Crosscut readers are a tough audience; it can be daunting to see your work subjected to instant review and discussion, however civil — and civil it almost always seems to be — by people who seem smarter and better informed than you’ll ever be. It’s also exhilarating to realize you’re part of a community — a community of inquiry, curiosity, and engagement — rather than a cog in the marketing machine. The first article I wrote for Crosscut elicited more comments than a month of postings would at that magazine.
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