Why we write
Tom Naatz | Friday, May 1, 2020
I’ve gotten a range of responses to my articles and columns for The Observer. Some of them qualified as unearned praise. A Facebook commenter — referring to a column on religiosity — angrily asked no one in particular why I was allowed to take communion at Mass. The cake goes to a man who told me I likely had few friends owing to my “crappy attitude” after I made some tongue in cheek fun of utopian Notre Dame. Joke’s on him — I read the comment for the first time in a packed booth at Brothers.
Of course, sometimes the responses are thoughtful and quite serious. I’m not much of a crier, but one of the last times I got tears in my eyes was when I opened an email written in response to a memorial article I wrote last summer. It was probably one of the more impactful emails I have ever received.
Standing in a full jacket and tie on a stuffy D.C. Metro platform in the heat of summer waiting for a customarily tardy Red Line train, my shoulders dropped as I contemplated the kind and grateful email. Of course, it was in response to one of the most emotional pieces I ever composed for the paper: a tribute to a man who left this world too soon. Standing on that platform, deep underground at the height of the midday heat, I suddenly felt dreadful as I realized how inadequate the article in question was.
The task was impossibly tall. Even withstanding the fact that my Editor-in-Chief had graciously granted me 1900 words — nearly double the usual upper limits of length for Observer articles — to do the job, it still was not nearly enough to capture a person’s inspiring spirit. Even the perfect newspaper article could never fully capture someone’s essence.
Maybe I wasn’t meant for this job. Maybe I should have just joined my dorm’s football team and called it a day. Maybe that would have been easier.
I reread the email, which was filled with love and gratitude for the deceased, a second time. As my train lumbered towards Metro Center, my thoughts started to evolve.
Maybe that would have been easier, but not better. After all, this is why we write.
Humans love to tell stories. Think about all of the times you’ve returned home and told whoever was waiting for you, “you’ll never believe what happened to me today.” Stories are the currency of social interaction. They’re what we laugh about over meals in the dining hall, what we cry over while we lie awake at night. They serve as the inspiration that gets us through a tough day or a call to action in the face of injustice. Stories shape how we view the world; a story-less existence is a cold, gray void.
The great paradox is that in, a world as fast-moving and complicated as ours, it is virtually impossible to keep track of everything that is happening. Even a much smaller environment like Notre Dame is awash in information. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could curate the highlights?
That’s where we enter the picture. We try to tell you what you need to know.
The administration is trying to sneakily rescind universal dorm swipe access? We’re on it. There was a through-the-night protest on the first floor of Stanford Hall? Two of our reporters were on the scene gathering the details. Your little brother is applying to Notre Dame next year, and you want to give him some more background on the seemingly opaque process? Look no further than the News section of The Observer. A South Dining Hall monitor was on “Good Morning America?” We sat down with her to learn more about her outlook on life. A tragedy costs us a member of the community? We’ll spend the summer gathering the story and conveying it to the community.
Of course, we do not tell you what to think. That’s for you to decide on your own. There is a reason our nightly editors strip and scrub all of the adjectives and adverbs out of every article. Contrary to Facebook comment diatribes from graying alumni, we don’t have a political or ideological agenda. Our agenda is informing you. We maintain strict conflict of interest rules to ensure The Observer never becomes our own personal mouthpiece. That opinion piece you read that really made you mad? That was from the Viewpoint section — it is an opinion, not officially endorsed by The Observer (unless it came from the full, unanimous Editorial Board).
We’re not perfect. Sometimes we make honest mistakes — a name misspelled, a timeline misunderstood due to an ambiguous adverb, etc. We’ll dutifully correct those types of errors if they ever occur. But as I alluded to earlier, sometimes the challenges are more philosophical. There just aren’t enough words in the dictionary or ads-free pages in the paper to capture the pain or joy of every story in its entirety. Again, sometimes there are moments that the words just don’t reach: How can you possibly describe both the manifold tragedy and holy inspiration present in the story of a life cut way, way too short?
I grappled with these questions for three years. Then, sitting on the train, it hit me. What matters is that people read what we write, and they walk away having learned something.
The work is not always easy. Sometimes the stories are heavy. Often times people, wary of damaged reputations, would rather keep things quiet. It’s chilling to open an email that is politely worded but written to intimidate, imploring us to stop poking around or face the consequences.
Even days when the paper is firing on all cylinders can be disappointing. Few people understand that we publish five times a week and seemingly rarely read some of the pieces we bend over backward to write and publish. It makes sense. People are busy — why would they waste their time reading not always flattering news about their school? It’s tempting to blame people for not wanting to consider the heavy stuff. But that’s the wrong way to look at it, I think.
We do not live in a perfect world or attend a perfect school. There is a lot out there that needs fixing. The magnitude of problems is enormous and capable of inducing a migraine. Maybe it would just be easier to bury our heads in the sand and not think about it.
It would be easier, but not better. It is impossible to construct a perfect world without celebrating our successes and, importantly, understanding our present challenges. Observer editors have access to website viewership statistics; it’s mildly annoying to watch a well-written, important piece of journalism stuck on the launchpad while a Letter to the Editor about female athleisure soars to the stratosphere. Yet at some level, whether 50 or 500 people read an article doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone read it and had a chance to ruminate. Maybe that person will digest what they read and decide to do something about it. By enlightening them, journalists are giving them an opportunity to take action. Telling stories — however seemingly small, however emotional, however inconvenient — is the best way to give them that chance.
Tom is a former Notre Dame News Editor who decided to turn his passion for Observer Inside Columns into something productive. During quarantine, you can find him writing his thesis about Spanish politics, playing Mario Kart or trying his hand at Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.