…because if you look down all the time the tops of the buildings will start to dissolve and disappear. Good journalists – and academic researchers – always ask ‘why?’ To do any less is to commit sacrilege to both professions. When I was about ten years old my parents gave me one particular book that really touched me. It was by Norton Juster, a New York-born writer who spent some months as a Fulbright scholar studying architecture at the University of Liverpool in England.
The book is The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), and as a boy from Leicester in the East Midlands of England in the late 1960s I had to ask what a ‘tollbooth’ was. I guess that’s probably still the case. Even so, it’s pleasing to see that the book remains in the lower reaches of the Amazon top 100 for books/young adults/literature/classics. There are also reports of a Hollywood remake of the film version to come shortly.
The story is a sort of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where characters are named by their conditions and problems. Juster’s book speaks to the inquisitive nature of young minds, and the relentless play and discovery of words, meanings, and ideas that goes on in their heads. It’s a reflection on the gaining of understanding and knowledge, and a treatise on why such learning should be fun and enchanting.
What stayed with me was Juster’s idea of the city of Reality. Here it was that the residents hurried along the pavements with their heads down as the buildings began to disappear, unnoticed by those same busy people.
I spent weeks as a ten-year-old walking around the centre of Leicester looking at the rooftops when I was in town with my mum. I didn’t want the buildings to fade away. I had to play my part. Since then the moral has been clear to me: always connect; always question; always notice.
Here’s a feature from USA’s National Public Radio show, ‘All Things Considered’, about the book. And a short talk by Juster:
In other words, there’s a moment of confrontation: when we encounter something we don’t know or haven’t seen before. It’s at that exact time when we need to ask ‘why?’ The trick is to spend your entire life asking the difficult questions. That’s why I love the skills of journalism and academic inquiry.
For example, Emma Hemmingway – who’d spent years working in BBC newsrooms – only to have to walk back in as an academic in order to analyse and deconstruct the everyday working practices of the journalists at BBC Nottingham (Into the Newsroom: Exploring the Digital Production of Regional Television News, 2008, Routledge: London).
For her, it was the challenge of describing the layout of the furniture: the desks, the workstations, the editing desks, the empty space for meetings, the equipment – both hardware and software, fixed and mobile, and the studios. Not only was it the technical gear, it was the people too – and how the team interacted with one another and the equipment to produce daily news programmes.
And then it’s asking the relentless ‘why?’
She eventually presents an analysis of ‘the performance of practice’, (p.206), which combines an investigation of news output with accounts of the organisation of a newsroom. To do this she uses a method (a way of thinking, a heuristic – if you will) known as Actor Network Theory which treats human and non-human components as equally important in the ethnographic analysis of a process. I’m a great fan of looking at the world this way. So, the newsroom isn’t just a team of journalists, producers and technicians it’s also the bits of equipment and the way they help (or hinder) the getting-to-air of a particular story on an given day.
And like the city of Reality in Juster’s novel it’s important to look up and reflect on what’s happening all around. Otherwise it’ll disappear and be forgotten.
It reminds me of the time I tripped up the stairs at BBC Radio Derby and watched my typed scripts and stack of NAB carts, each one with my news audio clips in order, flutter and tumble down the stairwell. That was a bulletin that didn’t go as planned – at the interface with late 1980s tech. But it was still a news bulletin none the less.