Legacy Media Joins the First-Person Movement

Like New Lines, publications such as the New York Times are embracing the personal voice, making their pages more relevant and less elitist

Legacy Media Joins the First-Person Movement
A seller arranges newspapers at a newsstand in Cairo / Khaled Desouki / AFP via Getty Images

This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

I have often felt superfluous as a journalist when faced with the scope of someone’s lived experience. When a refugee pours out their heart on the experience of fleeing home or a survivor of a trafficking ring describes her ordeal or a witness to a suicide bombing details the tragedy of their loved one’s death, I often regretted having to condense the most momentous occasion of their lives to a couple of powerful quotes to go with a piece that incorporates discussions of the background and context, the geopolitical implications, that nebulous big story that I had to tease out that felt less immediate than the raw emotion I was privileged to witness. It’s not that I didn’t see the value in my role as a journalist but that I longed to give the space to listen and get out of the way, because human, down-to-earth perspectives are what mattered, what I felt connected with people, much more than the monocled analysis and big picture. The quotes and outpourings from the heart often lie dormant in a journalist’s notebook, perhaps material for a future book.

I felt this intensely last year when I went about commissioning a story for New Lines about  Canada’s national truth and reconciliation day, which commemorates the Indigenous victims of the country’s brutal residential school system, in the operation of which thousands of children were taken from their parents and assimilated. Many died and were buried in mass graves; some are still being discovered to this day. 

I reached out to Crystal Semaganis, a Plains Cree writer, photographer and artist whose family endured the brutality of the residential school system. Her mother was taken to residential school at age 7, her grandparents had 13 children who went to residential school, and she and her six siblings were all separated from their families in the so-called 60s Scoop.

I was floored when I read her piece. It began: 

“Who hurt you, Mama? I know someone did because I can hear them when you yell at me.”

I heard this sentence from another residential school survivor, and immediately I felt it in the core of my being. I felt that familiar anguish, that familiar rage that a woman so beautiful and innocent was torn to shreds on a spiritual level, and then I think of all the hundreds of thousands of residential school survivors and their families, and the rage quietens to prayer and resistance.

The story was heartbreaking, but I would have been more heartbroken if I had had to gatekeep her words. She didn’t need to be given a voice through my words. She already had one. All she needed was a megaphone and for me to get out of the way.

When we launched New Lines, this kind of self-reflection was the impetus for our First Person section, where we sought to highlight stories of people (not just in the Middle East) who had lived through pivotal moments in history or whose experiences shed light on major issues, crises, traumas and joy. 

My work with mainstream or legacy media outlets (I don’t use the term “legacy” derisively; it just denotes a classical or institutional approach to what a newspaper or media outlet ought to look like and what it should cover) often left me with more questions than answers about why certain things are the way they are. 

I never understood, for example, the penchant they had for appointing a particular writer based in Washington, New York or London as a kind of viceroy for Arab or Middle Eastern commentary. I rarely learned anything new about the issues at hand that I didn’t learn from reading coverage of those issues from foreign correspondents on the ground or local reporters and their social media feeds, save for the outrage language du jour. I dabbled for a while after moving from the Middle East in writing regular columns, an exercise that left me convinced that newspapers should do away entirely with the idea of columnists, because nobody has something interesting or informative to say on a weekly basis and no one should have an opinion about everything. 

And increasingly, I found myself wanting to hear directly from the people affected by a major event rather than through the filter of formulaic, 400-word news stories where people barely glanced at the lede before moving on. I never understood the penchant of news sites condensing their stories further to match the reader’s supposed short attention span, instead of giving them stories that they actually want to read, written by people like them, in language that doesn’t have the life sanitized out of it. It is this sanitization that creates bubbles, that makes it so inconceivable that others might have a different worldview that they feel strongly about.

I was encouraged this week reading about changes along those lines in the bigger mainstream outlets. The New York Times is redesigning its Sunday review to incorporate more of that directly from the source journalism, focusing on relaying the lived experiences of people from all walks of life. The section will also feature sections called “First Person” (!) and “Witness,” both of which will center the experiences of ordinary people, especially those whose lives have intersected with major historical events.

Speaking from our experience at the magazine, this will help bring to the fore new authentic voices, with powerful lived experiences, and readers will read every word, however long. The reader’s short attention span is a myth, as we found: Their disinterest is in the content they’re being fed, not in the important stories themselves.

This is an exciting and refreshing change. The pandemic and the misfortunes it has begotten have created an unfortunate crisis in expertise, the establishment and the media. Often the media has been condemned for simply being the messenger relaying bad news, though it is also guilty of promoting a general atmosphere of pessimism and worst-case scenarios even during optimistic episodes like the successful development of vaccines, and not adequately interrogating government power grabs. One would also be forgiven for having the general sense as a news consumer that the great liberal media outlets (much like the conservative ones) are curating their coverage and newsletters in a manner that is geared towards audiences of specific political and social profiles rather than catering to all equally.

Gatekeeping was never going to work in an era where everyone’s life takes place in a public square and where everyone has a megaphone. Getting out of the way, letting the voices of people speak for themselves and laying bare the diversity of the lives around us and that are affected by the great currents of history does not threaten journalism and newspapers’ role in the public discourse. 

It makes them more relevant, less prone to the trappings of elitism, more human.

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