In journalism, the one space that receives sustained, local-style coverage is Twitter. If you think of Twitter as a place with its own myopic concerns, dialect and set of infamous characters that only matter there and nowhere else, it fulfills most of the characteristics of a small town. The coverage of what happens on Twitter, which, at times, feels like it makes up about a quarter of the words in every magazine, website or newspaper, generally skips over the long, explainer-y way we tend to write about pretty much everything else.
This situation also bleeds over into other aspects of the industry. I know many more colleagues “from Twitter” than I do from, say, a local journalist hangout for the very simple fact that I, like many reporters under 50 years old, never worked for a local newspaper.
Here’s where I’m supposed to say that all this is fine and just the way things are done now. But I hope you’ll allow me a little bit of crankiness because I do think that there has been something lost in the transfer between Royko’s localism and the parochialism of Twitter, just as music has suffered from the diffusion and then reorganizing of scenes from physical places to online.
For years when I was a teenager, my hometown, Chapel Hill, N.C., was supposed to become “the next Seattle.” Bands like Superchunk, Polvo and the Archers of Loaf all played a venue called the Cat’s Cradle and evinced a sound that felt like it represented a type of slacker Southern intellectualism and counterculture that was rooted in everything from the local barbecue to the anarchist bookstore downtown. This slacker spirit is still in me; my identification with Chapel Hill is grounded in this music, which I didn’t even particularly like at the time but understood was part of where I was from.
Art is simply better when it comes out of these lived contexts. It matters, for example, that Mavis Staples, Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke all went to the same elementary school in the South Side of Chicago and that many of their classmates came from families who carried Southern musical traditions up north during the Great Migration. It also matters that they grew up in the shadow of Mahalia Jackson, who they could see perform in a nearby church.
When things are that specific and need little to no introduction, they feel alive and relevant in ways that transcend the local contexts in which they were created. I know nothing about Chicago’s neighborhoods, nor do I have much nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s when Royko was working. But when I read his old columns, I feel an odd, and arguably misplaced, intimacy with both him, the writer and his city. I care because he cared enough not to try to cater and optimize every word toward the biggest audience possible.