Last summer I took our brand new camera (the Sony FS100) to Ocean Grove, New Jersey and shot some footage of my father talking about the volunteer reporting he does for a local blog. I had outfitted the camera with a bunch of Zacuto components — a first for me — and I needed an excuse to get comfortable with the new rig before starting on a new feature documentary project (Sam Douglas’s new ‘Land Art’ doc). We spent a few leisurely days just walking around town, shooting video and talking about his career in journalism and the pro bono writing and reporting he does now. I really enjoyed hearing about all that, and I find as I watch this footage that I’m very proud of my father and what he stands for.
My father, Charles Layton, was an assigning editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is retired now and lives with his wife in Ocean Grove, NJ, a very quaint little section of Neptune Township, right on the coast. In Ocean Grove, people are house proud, they are community-minded, they are involved with their neighbors and with local issues. Perhaps one of the reasons they are so involved is that the houses there are built incredibly close together. I think the distance between my father’s house and his two neighbors on either side is about six feet or so. People sit on their porches and are within earshot of several of their neighbors, so they talk regularly. It’s a special place.
For the past few years my father and his wife, Mary Walton (also a retired journalist), have been contributing to a blog about Ocean Grove called “Blogfinger.” The blog was started by a retired cardiologist named Paul Goldfinger, who lives down the street. Knowing that my father was a former newspaperman, Paul urged him to contribute. Dad began by writing essays about his experiences in town, some of them humor pieces. But before too long, he was grabbing a notebook and heading down to the township committee meeting or to the homeowners association meeting or to the zoning board and writing up hard news stories. On the phone one day, Mary told me, “Your father is returning to his wire service roots.”
And now my father, in his retirement, is actively pursuing this endeavor. I’d say he probably puts in at least a little time on the blog every day. Some days he works quite hard at it. He’s become one of those retired people who volunteers his skills and experience to help his community, but in quite a unique way — he volunteers as a journalist.
“I discovered that writing news stories about events in a little tiny town like this is every bit as interesting as writing news stories about events in Philadelphia or at a state capital someplace, which had kind of been my background,” Dad says.
My father and Mary both spent much of their careers at the Philadelphia Inquirer in its heyday during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when newspapers were profitable and riding high.
“When I came to the Inquirer, the editor (Gene Roberts) was a guy who had come from the New York Times, and he modeled the Inquirer newsroom basically after the New York Times newsroom with some important modifications. He emphasized large-scale investigative reporting, and he emphasized a lot more stylish writing and quirky and interesting feature stories than the New York Times had been doing at that time. So he modeled a paper that was both serious and interesting, and it was a lot of fun to work there,” Dad told me.
Blogfinger’s readership has grown to about 900 to 1,000 visits per day — not bad in a town of about 3,200 people. And on days when there is really big news, such as a fire or a debilitating snow storm, readership has surged to as many as 7,000 hits. In cases like that, it’s clear that Blogfinger has become a valued community trust.
There must be hundreds of blogs now that act as clearinghouses for local news, and much has been written about how, going forward, blogs might fill a news gap as many small newspapers close or see their coverage shrink in the face of dwindling profits.
“The Asbury Park Press will go for a couple of weeks or a couple of months without having a story about Ocean Grove,” Dad says. “And that’s become more of a problem recently because the paper has been constantly cutting staff and cutting resources, and they just made another series of cuts. So the last two times I’ve been to the township committee meetings, there’s been no reporter from the Asbury Park Press there. They just missed whatever went on. So I think that we are kind of filling a large gap in town. And it’s a service that most communities don’t have.”
But this gets at an interesting conundrum for me. The Blogfinger model has been great in Ocean Grove, but it’s not necessarily reproducible or sustainable. Even if people in other communities were to try to run a blog like this, they likely wouldn’t have the benefit of utilizing seasoned journalists. Dad’s and Mary’s newspaper experience is one of the things that makes Blogfinger absolutely unique. I like the idea of citizen reporters and crowd-sourced information, in theory, and Blogfinger makes use of this kind of information, too. But it takes real energy and experience to vet those reports. On most amateur blogs, are there experienced editors to guide the reporting and polish the writing? Would most bloggers ever learn or even care about the professional standards under which Dad and Mary operated at the Inquirer?
Mary, a former Inquirer feature writer and now Blogfinger’s literary editor, says this about her work on the blog: “I think that when the standards have been drummed into you — standards about fairness, standards about accuracy, standards about style… trying to write a lede that will catch people’s interest — those don’t change, regardless of where you are. Because that’s your work. That’s what you take pride in.”
Being the son of a newspaperman, I have a lot of respect for what journalists do. Like a lot of people, I think a healthy democracy requires a well-paid, professional class of reporters, overseen by tough editors. And established newspapers are the institutions that can pass on their culture of ethics to the next generation.
But, that said, what my father is doing now, in his retirement, for free, might just be the purest expression of his vocation. It’s intensely local; it’s relevant to his life and to his neighbors’ lives. And he’s doing it for the love of the work.
As for me, I really enjoy working on documentary films. It’s creatively and technically challenging, and I think the best of these films add positively to the culture. But films often take years to make. I envy my father’s daily and constant contribution to his community and to his craft.