Life during the pandemic: limitations, trauma, and dignity

We are now several weeks into a strange and bizarre new way of living as the novel coronavirus approaches what will hopefully be its apex. During this time my thoughts and prayers have returned often to the question of how I, Andrew Collins, can flourish during a time like this. As I’ve leaned into this question, I’ve noticed three streams of response emerge in my heart as I journey through this strange new world that has happened to us. 

LIMITATIONS

The first, and most obvious to me, is that of mortality, death, limitation. I think of the weighty, prescient timing of the outbreak in light of the church calendar observed by many Christian in liturgical traditions. On February 26 the season of Lent began. Those who attended Ash Wednesday services had ash marked on their foreheads and the following words spoken over their bodies: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” 

I have no doubt that our society, and in fact the entire world, is collectively more in touch with this reality right now than we have been in a long time—perhaps not since World War II. We are facing a threat that is both seen and unseen. We know it exists and the harm that it causes, but it is invisible to the naked eye. Disease could catch us anywhere. It could lie within us, symptom free, and spread through us into the body of another. The world is suddenly a dangerous place.

But the world has always been a dangerous place. Our bodies have always been fragile and finite, vulnerable to the whims of a distracted bus driver, a cancer diagnosis, a stray bullet, a heart attack striking out of thin air. 

Beyond the short span of years we have on this earth, we are limited in other ways. Shelter in place orders have brought this truth to the forefront of our awareness. We cannot do many of the things that we love, that we once had the freedom to do. We cannot gather to pray together at the church down the street. We cannot get on an airplane, fly across an ocean, and feel the thrill of exploring strange new lands and cultures. We cannot step into our therapist’s office to weep. We cannot meet strangers in the park over a friendly pickup game of basketball. 

Yes, we are not so free and autonomous, the possibilities not so endless, as they once seemed. 

I do not think it is such a bad thing to see this and feel the check in our gut from this—the stifling lonliness as we sit alone in our apartment, the sense of being trapped in a handful of bedrooms with our family with no relief in the near future. In fact it can be, if we are willing to face it, the place where we begin to live life with greater fullness and sincerity.

I like how Annie Dillard puts it in An American Childhood:

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring. It is riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping. Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.

We have been forced out of the “dreaming fast loud routine” that is the modern world. That much is true enough. Why not, then, pay attention to the stillness, and find ways to enter more deeply into this country weekend before the hours tick away?

TRAUMA

In the past I might have concluded this essay here and let the existential message of death and finiteness be the last word. But I think there’s room in this space for more movement, for a dance of feelings and experiences. I think there’s room for us to let the highs and lows show up and speak their piece. 

Have recognized that life is short, many of us feel that we now, thanks to shelter-in-place orders, have time to pursue things that we have long put off. Now, we tell ourselves, is the time to learn to play the piano, to get out our canvas and paints again, to become penpals with that friend from high school we lost touch with, to write the novel that’s been percolating for the last decade, to fan the fading embers of a once-vibrant marriage. 

But the harsh, awful fact is that this epidemic is a traumatic event. The planet has bucked under us. We’re not living on the same earth that we were on two months ago. We’ve lost our footing. The rythms and liturgies of life have cut out. I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist, but I know that trauma does not bring out the best in us. It tends to have a regressive effect, resurfacing old wounds and old survival tactics.

An acquaintance of mine expressed this well in a Facebook post last month:

Go easy on yourself today. You’re not supposed to know how to do this. You’re not supposed to have all the answers or be totally peaceful and calm. This is new and uncertain and scary…

Your old patterns are gonna flare up. The ones you don’t like. The ones you wish would just go away already. The ways you avoid and escape and abandon yourself.

It’s enough right now just to notice them.

I see my old patterns flare up these days. I feel my existence sucked back into the orbit of glowing smartphone screens and self-aware Facebook posts and I hate it. As I scroll aimlessly, frictionlessly through social media, I feel the same restless impulses that I used to feel in my early twenties, always itching for another red notification, another blue dot, another buzz heralding the arrival of a new text message. I stay up past midnight playing a computer version of Axis and Allies against crappy AIs until I can hardly keep my eyes open, and then go to bed with that dull feeling of nothingness inside that lingers after wasted time. All the while a vertiable treasure trove of unread books sits within arms reach. I berate myself for wasting precious quarantine time, yet still the cycle goes on.

I have worked hard the past four years to pull away from this digital orbit but now it feels like I don’t have a choice. Better to Facetime a good friend than not speak to him at all, right? Better to ramp up my freelance work a bit and remain in decent financial shape so I’ll be okay as the economy slumps into a recession for who-knows-how-long, right? 

Yes, I think so, but I still don’t like it.

I’ve often sung the refrain with Switchfoot: “I want to thrive, not just survive.” I sing it still, trying to stave off the old feelings of shame and self-loathing creeping up in my heart. In these moments I try to remember that sometimes our journey to thriving begins with naming that it’s okay to just survive, that our feelings and bodies are serving us and in some cases quite literally keeping us alive.

I recently rewatched Dunkirk, the World War II film about the miraculous evaculation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops who would otherwise have been captured or killed by advancing Nazi armies. At the end of the film, as the soldiers return to the safe shores of England, an old blind man affirms them as he hands out blankets.

“Well done lads, well done,” he says as the soldiers pass by. “Well done lads.”

“All we did is survive,” one soldier replies, still reeling, no doubt, from memories of torpedoed navy vessels sinking into the sea, screaming dive bombers overhead, and body bags lining the beaches of Dunkirk. Surely he feels pathetic, impotent, cowardly. But the blind man’s response is as profound as it is simple.

“That’s enough,” he says. “Well done.”

Last week UN Secretary General António Guterres said the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge facing the world since World War II. To use biblical language, the world is entering a time of trials and tribulations. There will be many moments, more for some of us than others, where it feels like we’re just getting by, just surviving.

I’m with the old man handing out blankets: that’s enough.

DIGNITY

The third stream involves claiming and living into my own dignity, worth, and power as a human being. In the face of encroaching limitations and disruptive trauma, this takes me into a paradoxical space because I see myself and those around me being humbled and exalted at the same time. Yes, we are finite and limited, but that does not mean we need to throw up our hands in surrender and give up the power and volition that we do possess. Quite the opposite. Even though we’re isolated and separated from each other, our humanity is still on full display in profound, unique ways.

A remarkable thing happens when we name our own mortality. I like how Marilynne Robinson articulates this in her essay Proofs, where she considers a passage from 1 Peter:

All flesh is grass, and the beauty of it is like the flower of the field. In feeling the truth of such words we are seeing the world from a perspective like God’s. In feeling our unlikeness to the eternal we are experienceing the very height of our humanity—experiencing, that is, our ability to know far beyond our needs, our immediate circumstance, and to ponder existence itself. As we humble ourselves we are exalted.

Sit with that a moment. Read it again.

In the midst of much tragedy and death, this is a remarkable thing to consider. It underscores the reality that I can find new ways to seek out and experience life during this season, that I can choose to be in the world in a way that is both more human and somehow more divine even as the knawing anxiety betrays my vulnerability and the stay-at-home orders shock body and soul with the cold brevity of my finitness. 

In this hour of loss and disconnection I see my own indomitable human spirit rise up and surface despite the tumultuous sea of overwhelmed hospitals, global upheaval, and economic recession that surrounds me. It rises as I dance alone in the kitchen to the beat of an indie pop song while making scrambled eggs for lunch. It rises when I leave an 80% tip on a to-go order at my local coffee shop—something I would rarely, if ever, do under “normal” circumstances. It rises when I bring home firewood, chopped up from damaged framing lumber at the lumber yard where I work, so that my roommates can have fires in the living room on cold, cloudy days as they work from home. It rises when I pray aloud a liturgy for medical providers, weeping in the car as I beg Jesus to reach out hands of healing and comfort to those suffering in isolation from COVID-19, cut off from friends and family. 

In all of these moments I step into my own human dignity. Rather than shrink back in the face of a crisis that is outside of my control, I continue to make my own choices. I find new ways to live and move and have my being in the world. I exercise the power that I do have—power bestowed on me as an image bearer of God—to actually impact and change the universe, to play a part in someone else’s story, to catch the eye of God himself. 

The coronavirus may be bringing about the end of life as we know it in many ways, but it is far from the end of life. Like a seed that falls to the earth and dies before it sprouts, perhaps there is a time to die before we live. Wouldn’t that be something?

To despair and numb ourselves to the weight of the world’s brokenness is a very human response. To hope defiantly that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” is also human. We do both all the time. I for one intend to ride these waves as they come, trusting that I am, in fact, living out a story, for to be alive is to be in motion, a tender shoot unfurling and reaching recklessly up towards the sky.

Early reflections on life under COVID-19

With everyone retreating and self-quarantining to stem the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, it seems the time has come for me to live more like a writer again. Here are some of my early reflections on life under COVID-19:

 

—Over the past several weeks I’ve seen well-meaing Christians post things like “God’s plan is going exactly according to plan.” 

To that I say, with all due respect, shut up. I do believe that providence is at work in the world is some mysterious, awful (in the traditional sense of the word—awe-filled) way. But people are hurting right now. They’re suffering. They’re afraid. And for good reason. People are going to die, perhaps on the scale of wartime numbers (God-forbid!). We don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip and project nice, theologically-correct statements. On the contrary, my prayers at their most desperate and sincere these days sound more like: God, where the hell are you right now? Why must we endure this?

Right now, I think that’s okay. And I’m going to keep shouting that lament for as long as I feel that way. God can take it. He won’t cast me away for it.

As I’ve sat in my room and sought the presence and voice of God over the past week, I’ve found myself returning to a great vision of the Lord holding our suffering. When my heart broke and my world fell apart last year, I learned firsthand, at an emotional, heart level, that God tends to show up in the most powerful and intimate ways amid two kinds of experiences: those of great love and of great suffering. Today the world is entering into a collective, once-in-a-generation suffering. So many things are upended. The elderly and immuno-compromised are at great risk. Graduations thrown into flux. Weddings celebrations canceled or delayed. Career changes and advancements halted in their tracks. Travel plans derailed. I do not fear for my own well-being, but I am afraid for the elderly in my local church. I’m afraid for my friend with asthma. I’m afraid for my friend’s sister battling cancer. I’m afraid for the child stuck in a broken home who no longer has access to the structure of a school day and lunch in the cafeteria. 

This is suffering. I do not know why the novel Coronavirus is happening. I’m not comfortable saying God has a plan for this or meant for this to happen because in so many ways I don’t see the goodness of this present moment. To do so would dishonor and be dishonest about the experiences of those who are currently suffering.

That said, I do believe God is real and actually gives a damn about us. In my heart I see the Spirit of God hovering over the world right now just as they hovered over the waters during creation. I imagine Jesus in my bedroom, sitting in the chair across from me, and find that he is not just a savior who will deliver us from this body of death but, more importantly in times like this, he is a wounded savior. He is a man who even now carries scars on his hands and feet and side because in some mysterious, profoundly human way he subjected himself to the violence, injustice, brokenness, and disease of this world and therefore has the embodied capacity to feel it with us. I believe that right now God is actively hurting with each and every one of us and longing to draw near to us, and that if we go to him we will find a friend. I believe we’ll find a friend ready to be with us wherever we’re at: to hold us when we’re shaking uncontrollably with fear and anxiety, to weep with us when a loved one is hospitalized or when our dreams have been shattered, to laugh with us in the funny and absurd moments of being quaratined, to rejoice with us in the beauty of music or the savory goodness of a home-cooked meal, to long for connection and reunifcation with the lover, parent, child, friend, or sibling from which we are now separated. 

 

—If I may venture to suggest one theory about what providence is up to, however, I do suspect that it is no coincidence the pandemic has swept across the world during the season of Lent, which is inaugurated with this exhortation: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re much more in touch with that reality now. We can feel it in our bones, our heartbeat, our breath.

 

—I’m excited about the great output of human creativity that will result from this. Already the world has seen a staggeringly vast and beautiful release of creative energy. Musicians are livestreaming concerts and writing songs. People are painting and writing poetry. They’re creating mini-golf courses in their homes and making epic Lego creations. Teachers are finding new ways to impart knowledge amid upended norms. Parents are finding ways to engage and educate their children. Neighbors are finding new ways to meet each other’s needs.

Spring is here, but we are only now just entering a strange, ill-timed social winter. I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s reflections about winter in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: 

It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.

As is so often the case in life, we are in a paradoxical space of both/and. This is a time to sow, to rest, to prepare for life on the other side of this pandemic. But it is also a time to reap the harvest of our creative passions, ingenuity, and inventiveness that we have otherwise neglected.

I recently got the lyrics “live it like a song” tattooed on my arm. If we think of life as a song, then certainly the melody right now has taken a sudden and unexpected modulation into a minor key. But that doesn’t mean it still can’t have the aching, awful beauty that is relentless creativity in the face of pain and tragedy. 

 

—It’s time to appreciate the essential workers in our neighborhoods and in the world at large who keep us alive and safe every day. Truckers and delivery drivers are the new calvary in our war against the virus, transporting all manner of life-sustaining goods ranging from hospital supplies to fresh produce to toilet paper. Mail carriers, powerplant workers, garbage collectors, farmers, all of these oft-neglected individuals are soldiering on to preserve life and keep the world from descending into anarchy. Let’s bless these workers. Let’s honor them. Let’s love them (from afar). My heart aches with joy and love to see that for once we are not only declaring that everyone matters, but knowing it and feeling it deep in our hearts. The elderly and immunocompromised matter. Children in school matter. Therapists matter. Priests and artists, computer programmers and medical researchers, politicians and janitors—they all matter so much right now! This reality, I am increasingly convinced, pulses at the very heartbeat of God, and it is echoing loudly throughout the world because we all bear the imago dei. 

 

—I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of this with a healthier relationship to technology. I do not like that my average time spent on Facebook and on my smartphone has spiked dramatically in recent weeks. I loathe it, in fact, all this screen time. But right now I’m thankful that these technologies exist. I’m thankful for the communication and connection to other human beings that they provide at a time like this. I’m glad that I can still hear the voices and see images of my friends and family at a moment’s notice. At the end of this, however, I hope we see that these mediated methods of communicating and connecting with each other are no substitute for embodied face-to-face encounters. I hope we realize that we cannot live in a cocoon of tech-mediated reality and expect to flourish as humans. I think we will feel a gap, a longing for embodied connection that social media or Zoom cannot fill. Already, at this early stage in the quarantine, I long for the day when I can hug someone—anyone. How sweet, how real, how precious will that moment be, the simple act of hugging someone? And how much more will we appreciate how essential touch is to life itself?

 

—If I could offer one exhortation amid the digital noise of the pandemic, I’d encourage everyone to take some time to practice silence and solitude. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in “Life Together”:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.

I’m an introvert, yet I am struggling to live well and make good life choices in conditions where I can’t meet friends for coffee, play pickup ultimate Frisbee, go to the gym, attend a concert, or go out on a date. It may come more easily to some of us than to others, but I propose that the time to get alone with ourselves is now.

Several years ago, over a nine-month span, I had the privilege of experiencing six separate days of silence and solitude. They were the best days of my year. They ushered me into new depths of being. They freed me to find the glory of an entire world in a single flower. They helped me start to taste and see the joy in literally, physically walking with God. They gave my mind space to wander, to compose poetry, to rest and process my life. 

At a time when videoconferencing, phone calls, and social media are the only ways to safely connect with most people, I suspect that the practice of silence and solitude will be the key to avoid being flooded by digital noise. I’m not sure if there’s any other way, in fact, to walk through this into a healthy emotional state on the other side. 

It doesn’t have to be for a full day. Block out a chunk of time from nine to five. Or just a morning. An hour even. Close the laptop. Put away your phone. Turn off Alexa. Go into a still, quiet place, and see what the silence has to say. Brew a cup of coffee and savor its flavor. Light a candle and breathe in its aroma. Tend to a houseplant. Feel the sun shine on your skin. Write a letter, in longhand, to a friend. See what voices begin to speak, where your mind wanders, what feelings rise up. Write about it. Talk to God about it.

We have so much to teach ourselves, if only we will take the time to notice.

Quick Take On The Presidential Debates

I’ve never followed an election season as closely as the one America is in the middle of right now. Granted, at the tender at of 22, that’s not saying a whole lot, but working on a congressional campaign myself, I felt a professional obligation to keep up with the Obama-Romney race. The presidential debates, in particular, set the tone for the campaigns down the home stretch and shape the talking points of the public square (at least for a week or so). That’s why I made it a point to watch all of them.

As much as people may like to complain about the formats, the questions, and the state of political discourse in America in general, I think there’s something to be said for the presidential debates. One problem with politics is that’s it’s fake. Everything you see of a candidate is a carefully constructed image and surface-level presentation. This is most true on the campaign trail. It’s one thing to deliver a faultless, teleprompter-assisted speech on the stump or shake hands with thousands of enthusiastic supporters. Going face-to-face with your opponent, someone inevitably seeking to exploit all of your greatest weaknesses and failures, is an entirely different matter. It seems, then, that a debate gives us a slightly better glimpse of who our candidates really are because we see them in the face of opposition.

That said, the nature of politics and our society at large means that these debates are just as much (if not more) about style as substance. As such, you have to judge them on two levels. One, how did the candidate come across to people? Was he likable? Knowledgeable? Presidential? Two, what are his views and what kind of vision does he have for the country? Are his arguments sound? How much does he manipulate the facts? Will his policies actually work?

I would argue that the Romney/Ryan ticket was, on the whole, better than Obama/Biden on both of these counts. Continue reading →

Political Journalism and Lolcats–Together?

Politico writer Ben Smith made waves last week when news broke that he was leaving most of his duties at the young political news site to head up a new  team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a website devoted to distributing popular social content across the Web. The editorial team, Smith said, will cover traditional beats like sports and politics plus other, “non-traditional” news categories.

On the surface, it seems like an odd move. In the world of elite political news coverage, Politico is where it’s at. Everyone in Washington, DC reads it. It’s one of three things that former president George W. Bush reads every morning (the other two are the Bible and the Wall Street Journal). When I spent a semester in DC, the first journalist I met had some advice for me: read Politico–every day.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, collects and promotes anything that lots of people are clicking on, seeking to provide “the viral world in real time.”  It is thus geared toward everyone on the Web; we all know the posters and gag videos that come up on such sites. I do not frequent either of the two sites myself these days, but from what I know of the two, I would have no qualms about spending a few hours a week reading Politico.

BuzzFeed? It hosts a weekly battle to choose the “best”, most time-wasting flash game and makes lists of top viral videos.

So why did Smith make the switch? Clearly he has an entrepreneurial spirit, but I think he realizes something more. Simply put, the internet is powerful. Some have called it the “Second Gutenberg Moment,” and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. Those who learn to tap into this power have the potential to gain a lot of influence in a short amount of time. I doubt that Smith hopes to become the next Drudge or Zuckerberg, but as many articles about the move have pointed out, BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti is a co-founder of the successful HuffingtonPost. Peretti knows how to work the web better than most, and it appears he hopes to duplicate his success with BuzzFeed (although he refuses to speak directly about comparisons between the two). Continue reading →

Music Review: Vice Verses

It’s easy to choose one word to describe Switchfoot’s new album, Vice Versestension. Musically, this new work from San Diego natives bring the same rocking signature-guitar-riff-songs that fans have come to know and love, balanced, of course, by softer, but powerful, heartfelt ballads. Lyrically, it deals with many of the main themes from Switchfoot’s past albums. Vice Verses takes the band’s best qualities and strings them tight between the great hurts that confront us every day and the great hope we can have despite them.

This tension comes out as the songs bounce between an Ecclesiastes-type mourning of the vanity of life and a yearning for hope in the eternal life to come. As you listen to Vice Verses, this comes in transitions: it opens with a powerful upbeat trio of songs and then drops abruptly to “Restless”, one of the softest tracks on the album. Shortly after this comes the most cynical song on the album, “Selling the News”, followed by the much more tender “Thrive.” We don’t even get to the hardest song on the album until track eight.

Throughout the album, front man Jon Foreman’s lyrics paint a dark and gritty world in which we are strung between the evil and the good–the “in-between,” as he calls it several times.

It’s a world full of rampant deception, manipulation and confusion. “Selling the News” delivers a poignant critique of the American media and the masses who listen to it: “Begging the question/mongering fears/the truth just seldom as it appears/We’re selling the news.”

Continue reading →

Freedom of Religion is Only for Christians

Photo: Gage Skidmore

As a human being, I have a bias towards certain things, and I think a large part of it is towards the media. It seems like everyone these days can find a way to criticize journalists and tear down the work they do. In any controversy (or lack thereof) the media is always one of the first groups to get blamed.

I’ll be the first to confess that journalists are human and make their fair share of mistakes. Worse, their presuppositions, religious beliefs, and political framework play into their coverage. However, I still want to believe the best about journalists and the stories they write. Most of the time, I don’t think they’re out to get one side or the other.

Sometimes, though, they really are “that bad”. Yesterday I nearly spit my drink out when I came across this AP story about the Aug. 6th prayer meeting headlined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Dubbed “The Response” and attended mainly by conservative Christians, the prayer meeting was promoted as a time for believers to gather and bring their mutual concerns and hopes before their God.

Many of the stories and commentary I’ve seen on it have either emphasized the political aspect–Perry’s marshaling the conservative Christian base–or questioned it’s appropriateness. Is it okay for a governor to lead such a narrow religious event? What about separation of church and state? etc.

If you want to talk about that, fine, but in this case, it seems, the writer has let her fear and disdain of these evangelicals slip through in a really sad way. Where did the AP story trip up? Look near the middle, where April Castro writes:

Perry’s audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music on stage. And Perry, himself, huddled on the stage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Perry’s idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians. (empahsis mine) Continue reading →

How Do You Label a Mass Murderer?

The other night, my dad was reading an article online about the recent massacre by Norway killer Anders Breivik. Either my father, the article, or both were complaining about the New York Times’ labeling of Breivik as a “fundamentalist Christian.” He thought their bias led them to use the fundamentalist label and thus give Christians a bad name.

It made me curious to see how the overall media world is covering the religious angle on the story, so I hit up Google news and pulled up a few articles, mainly analysis pieces. From what I found, it wasn’t that bad.

First is a article in the Washington Post’s On Faith section by Mathew Schmalz. He makes a clear distinction between a fervent, Christ-centered Christianity, and the glories of the Crusades and the old Christendom that Breivik sought to reinstate. In Schmalz’s analysis, if Breivik invoked Christ at all it was only as a symbol or tool by which to repel Muslim invasion.

Tony Norman’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette harps on the hypocrisy and shame of Breivik’s actions, noting that even the Norse warriors of Breivik’s heritage would despise his actions. Also, Norman compares him to radical Muslims, writing:

Like the mirror image of the Islamic terrorists he fears, Mr. Breivik has proven himself more adept at killing his own kind than his shadowy enemies. He subscribes to the ethic that if you’re going to go to the trouble of inciting a war between civilizations, then you might as well begin your own personal Ragnarok in your own backyard.

Most importantly, Norman is careful to note that Breivik only defended a type of “cultural Christianity,” and even that is “just a part of his contradictory and inane mission” (emphasis mine).

Continue reading →

A New New-Media Strategy

Everyone knows that traditional print is in decline, but as I was reminded over and over again during my semester at the Washington Journalism Center, journalism isn’t going away, it’s just evolving.

Several months ago, the New York Times started charging for online subscriptions. That sent plenty of waves through the industry, but now, two newspapers in Philadelphia are adapting to the evolution of new media in a much more creative way. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, which share Philly.com as part of Philadelphia Media Group, are now offering their paid subscribers an Android tablet at a discounted price. The details of the deal, like pricing and length of subscription needed to get the deal, are still to be announced.

Apparently this is the first time that any publication has bundled a device with its content. It seems like an idea that should be very effective at sustaining paper readership, even if it only ends up being a smaller yet more dedicated core. I think it’s a brilliant way to ensure subscribers for at least the foreseeable future. The genius of it is that it preserves the paid subscriptions. Unlike most publications which have released almost all of their content for free online, this deal would break readers of the “free-app/free-website” model and bring them back to a more traditional model of reading the paper.

My main question is sustainability. Greg Osberg, CEO of Philadelphia Media Group, predicts that the program will cost his company six figures. This is all fine and good for now, but will they continue to offer this deal to all potential subscribers in the future? For a paper that just recovered from bankruptcy, is such a deal economically viable over the next few years?

If not, then this seems to be little more than an effort by the papers to delay their own destruction. You can bet that a lot of papers in the mid-market range will be watching the deal’s beta test this august and debut on Black Friday with great interest.

“Shut it Again on Something Solid”

Out of all the sessions at the American Enterprise Institute‘s recent Purpose and Prosperity conference in Washington, DC, I identified personally the most with the Politics and the Millennials discussion panel. In their talk about the voting habits and political positions of today’s young evangelicals, the four speakers described me perfectly: confused and uncertain, unwilling to fully embrace a full conservative or liberal ideology, hesitant to identify with a political party, yet still leaning conservative at the end of the day.

Since spending a semester in Washington DC last fall at the Washington Journalism Center, I’ve felt the weight of my own ignorance more and more. Almost all of the black and white views that I brought in to the program last fall turned to gray. For the most part, I’ve considered this a liberating experience. It opened my mind to accept new ideas and freed me from any sort of allegiances or need to defend a person or policy.

Amy Black, a professor at Wheaton and one of the Politics and the Millennials panel members, said that one of her goals is to introduce a little gray–a few new, valid, perspectives–when teaching students. In principle, that’s a good thing. A good education should shake and challenge students’ views.

However, she said, the point is not to leave students in political limbo, unable to find their way out of a maze of muddled opinions and sound bites, yet that is where I was at prior to the Purpose and Prosperity Conference. My study of journalism had turned me, for all points and purposes, into a political agnostic.

 

Another one of the discussion panel members, Matthew Anderson, said that these young, confused evangelicals need to develop some sort of concrete framework through which to view and interpret politics. Political engagement and understanding, he said, starts with having a lens of coherent beliefs and values. It reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton said: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

That captures the essence of what I learned from the Purpose and Prosperity conference. Each session set up a clear framework through which to view matters of public policy and faith. Arthur Brooks redefined the way I look at the debate over capitalism. Alex Brill and Andrew Biggs described tax policy and social security in concrete numbers. Steven Hayward spoke on environmentalism with a balanced presentation of facts. Every speaker, in fact, clearly sketched out the present political situation in their respective fields.

The beauty of this is that once you have a framework in place–a reference point through which to view today’s political debates–then you can start asking good, informed questions. For an aspiring journalist like myself, this is huge, because now I know better how to categorize and study all these areas of public policy. I’ve learned what it means when Republicans talk about reforming Social Security, or when Democrats talk about renewable energy.

Better yet, I have taken a few more steps toward the one thing that hopefully all of us are looking for: the good old truth. Truth with clarity, fairness, and faith.