Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Covering stories about things I don't like

I can’t remember the last time I wrote about a subject toward which I felt conscious antipathy.          
Until yesterday, that is.

Usually I write about things that fascinate or engage or amuse me: societal trends, parenting, the arts. Occasionally I write about things I don’t really know anything about, like cybersecurity or liposuction. And sometimes I write about things I didn’t know I was interested in until I started researching the story, like NFL quarterbacks.

But it’s typical of me that as soon as I dig my hands into the topic, I fall in love with it.

So it was strange yesterday morning to be doing an interview about something to which I have a genuine aversion. The Framingham History Center is running a special exhibit for the next several months about Shopper’s World, or to be more specific the original Shopper’s World, the indoor mall built in the early 1950s that forty years later was razed and replaced with an outdoor shopping plaza which is also called Shopper’s World.

The woman from the Framingham History Center sounded downright joyful as she told me how meaningful it had been to her to put together this exhibit of old photos of Shopper’s World, memorabilia from the stores, interviews with the structure’s earliest employees and shoppers.

But all I could think of, even as I asked questions and noted down her responses, was how much I dislike Shopper’s World.

It was effectively the country’s first shopping mall, though technically another one, in Seattle, beat it to opening day by a hair. And as I see it, that makes Shopper’s World the precursor to so many undesirable things that followed. Big box shopping. Automobile culture, in which errands are done by car. The demise of the downtown, and the crumbling of small local businesses. In fact, just last week I was working on an assignment about a last-ditch effort by community members in West Concord to salvage the West Concord 5&10, one of the area’s last remaining decades-old locally owned small businesses. Shopper’s World is, to my mind, emblematic of what ruined modern commerce: first shopping malls, then big box stores, then outdoor plazas, all of which fostered the movement toward shopping by car in big shopping centers rather than in the pedestrian-friendly downtown areas that preceded them.

But the article I was writing wasn’t really about what’s wrong or right with modern retail; it was about this particular exhibit. And so I suppressed my antipathy and tried instead to focus on what the woman from the historical society was telling me about the exhibit.

And eventually, just like with almost every story I work on, I began to feel more warmly toward it. This woman loved the exhibit she had put together, loved the response it was getting from visitors who told her about their first job or the first excursion they ever remember taking or their first date at Shopper’s World. She enthused about the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins she served at a round-table discussion about Shopper’s World as they were putting the exhibit together, and she told me about the posters and memorabilia from the advertising campaign that brought 200,000 shoppers to opening day at Shopper’s World back in 1954.

I’m not sure whether this tendency to get drawn in by every subject I write about ultimately makes me a better or worse journalist. To some extent, I think it shows an unfortunate predilection for subjectivity. How effective a journalist can I be if I lose all cynicism as soon as I hear someone start talking about a subject they love?

And yet if I didn’t have this tendency, I’m not sure I’d be able to sustain a career as a journalist at all. What I love, and what I’ve always loved, is listening to people talk about their passions. It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether that’s a passion for building boats or playing football or performing vein surgery or mentoring underprivileged children or putting together an exhibit about a shopping mall. When people talk about what interests them, it interests me.

I still don’t like Shopper’s World, and I honestly still think society would be better off had it never been built and subsequently touched off the shopping mall movement. But even feeling that way, I think I can write an article that does justice to the historical society’s hard work on this exhibit. Creating it was someone’s passion, and telling the story of other people’s passions is my passion. And somehow amidst that paradox is where I’ve found my career.

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