It takes guts to try new things. If you're a loyalist of Wednesday Journal, then you might prepare yourself to be surprised, or maybe frustrated. I sure was, finding myself sitting with this paper's editor, Dan Haley, at the newly opened Lathrop House in Forest Park.
We were discussing an invitation to be a regular contributor as the paper works toward a "more diverse newsroom." As Dan described it, the board of directors behind the paper's new nonprofit model proposed the purposeful addition of more viewpoints, something less liberal. Dan, by way of mutual friends and his coverage of an unfriendly school board election, believed I might offer this difference. I hadn't been endorsed by the paper back then and some of the reporting made me feel like the enemy — a conservative. My curiosity was piqued.
"Cold brew for two, please." It may seem trivial, but this was an order for the unfamiliar and important first step in the conversation that proceeded. I'm no coffee snob and something about this seasoned newspaper guy conferred the same. Yet, together we ordered something new and unexplored. We were there because others thought of us as different, and I'm not sure conflict wasn't part of their design. Instead, an unfamiliar cup gave us something in common. The cold dark coffee was grounding for the conversation — a detente in the event our discussion spilled into the uncomfortable.
Dan spoke about pushing his pen with his newspaper for 40 years. He's been serving his family and his community, doing what he loves and now it has to change. I didn't sense reluctance. I sensed a quite capable man who had rolled with some punches over the years, in the industry and in life. He even admitted to doling out a few jabs with the mighty pen. While squeezing tight had worked in the past, the times were forcing him to relax his grip so his dream lived on.
With true journalism nearly dead and algorithms eating up local papers like French fries, I offered my circuitous story in return. Growing up in some beautiful Central New York county, struggling for grades and direction, and ultimately finding a way to cancel parts of my past with advanced degrees and promotions in the Midwest, eventually I, too, encountered circumstances that relaxed my grip and changed my role to director of character development, Lefko Family Inc., an at-home dad and a job I wouldn't trade for anything. Dan and I are entirely different men as these friends of friends had suspected, but the struggle in our stories connected us and we moved on to the details.
The paper was adopting a new model for business as well as revisiting content. Going forward, readers should see more diverse voices and views. I knew going to the appointment that I was a diversity candidate for a liberal paper, although I'm still not sure if it's rare views or simply my willingness to participate honestly and openly in community that earned me cold coffee.
Dan described having more conservative columnists in the past. Some stayed for years while others took their lumps and left. The door to this volunteer job would have the same flexible hinges and my guts were already conditioned for something new.
I've never been a regular subscriber. However, I've been interviewed and written about enough by its journalists and flipped enough pages to form a solid opinion.
A soap bubble is an inner and outer layer holding together a thin watery middle. The colors you see are what's left after light is reflected off both soap layers and across that watery middle. It isn't a rainbow; the full spectrum of color from both sides mostly cancel each other out and what's left is interference. We're in a bubble in this area. And if we're not careful to keep things thin between us, to allow more light between sides, to reduce interference then … well.
Time will tell if this paper is able to diversify its newsroom, interest more readers and reflect a vibrant local democracy. Until then, I'll do my best to help a fellow father and dreamer to preserve community journalism.
Long live the beautiful bubble that is Oak Park and River Forest.
Steve Lefko is a River Forest resident.
Answer Book 2019
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