Why journalism should and should not copy bicycling culture

Posted by Scott Leadingham

Hang on for a moment while I invoke two strange bedfellows – comedian Bill Hicks, who built his routine on smoking, and bicyclists – in writing about what journalists should do better.

Bill Hicks, who died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer, was nothing if not passionate. His rants and stage presence are famous among stand-up comedians. He’s particularly well-known for his stance on smoking, or, more accurately, on why non-smokers made him so angry. In one bit he polls the audience and asks who smokes and who doesn’t. When the non-smokers voice their presence in laudatory, enthusiastic tones, he calls them a bunch of “self-righteous slugs.” (Warning: his language is rather “colorful.” Don’t watch if you object to such language.)

 

“I’d quit smoking if I didn’t think I’d become one of you,” he says in the bit.

That line reminds me of my interest in biking (the kind with carb-loading and spandex, not chaps and Sturgis).

I’d become a hardcore bicyclist if it weren’t for hardcore bicyclists. In fact, I remarked to a friend recently that “the worst part about biking culture is biking culture.”

Forgive the gross generalization, but it’s been my experience that bicycling breeds an upper-crust crowd comparable to the snottiest fox-hunting, caviar-eating, polo-playing societal elitists out there. Go into any bicycle shop (not big box retailer) and ask about the lubrication benefits of using WD-40 on your chain.

“Eh. That’s a cleaner, not a lubricant. Don’t EVER use it to lube a chain!” is a likely response. “Here’s our selection of specialized lubricants – $10 per three oz. bottle.”

This notion of superiority, the kind coming from people on bikes that cost more than my car, keeps me away from becoming fully immersed and involved in biking culture.

Transfer that to journalism.

It’s not a new sentiment to say there’s a certain amount of arrogance in the profession. One doesn’t lead to the other, of course, but perhaps it’s more apparent in an industry that sees its practitioners’ names, faces and voices constantly before the public. As Linda Thomas aptly noted in a recent Quill piece on journalists to follow: “ … having the title of journalist doesn’t make you more interesting or important than anyone else.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned in this era of “citizen journalism” and CNN iReports, it’s that acts of journalism can come from any source and any moment. And now comes the obligatory invocation of informative video and messages disseminating from Iran in 2009 from “ordinary people” and not journalists. As my boss often says: Great journalism happens everywhere. I’ll add my own addendum: And by those who didn’t mean for it to happen.

So that’s what journalists should avoid in the bicycling culture – the notion that anyone is better for any reason, primarily based on the quality and price tag attached to one’s equipment and training.

BUT WHAT SHOULD JOURNALISM COPY FROM BIKING?

Call it a “God smack” or cruel irony or karma or whatever, but I recently found myself needing help from the very people I’d previously scorned: hardcore bikers.

Two days after remarking that the biking culture was the worst part of biking, I committed the cardinal sin of long-distance riding: no spare inner tube in case of a flat. Six miles from home, and no nearby bike shop open at the time, I began the long walk of shame down the bicycle friendly paved trail through Indianapolis. Nearly every biker I’d deem “hardcore” stopped to help or inquired of my situation. These were the type wearing team riding jerseys and specialty bike shoes more expensive than my monthly rent. One guy, who it turned out worked at the kind of bike store I avoid, offered to change my tire on the spot with his spare tube.

I denied all help, however, reasoning that I needed to learn my lesson, even if that meant walking well into the darkness of a muggy summer night. It occurred to me later that no “casual” biker – of which I saw at least 30 – offered assistance or even moral support. Nothing so much as an “are you okay, dude?” from the people in cotton t-shirts riding mountain bikes.

Perhaps that’s because they, like me, had no spare parts to offer. They, like me, weren’t prepared (another cardinal sin broken, this time from my Eagle Scout training).

Whatever the reason, I knew immediately that the “hardcore bikers” that I so passionately didn’t want to become were exactly the right model for journalists.

It’s that kind of willing-to-help attitude that more experienced journalists (the type winning Pulitzers and Sigma Delta Chi Awards) need to selflessly pass on to a new generation of reporters. Instead of getting locked into the box of “how can I turn this award-winning project into a best-selling book” (not that there’s anything wrong with that) perhaps the first thought should be “how can a younger journalist benefit from my experience?” The book deals and fellowships will fall into place. Heck, some news outlets are still lucky enough to have staff coordinate such opportunities for their high-profile journalists.

But the mentoring opportunities, such as SPJ’s program, for some strange reason aren’t as sought after as a Pulitzer or Peabody nomination. It’s not because there’s no one out there seeking help. Just take a look down the hall from your office. There’s a young reporter out there, perhaps limping along, waiting for you to put air in his tires. Stop and help. Don’t just blow smoke in his face as you walk (or ride) by.

Scott Leadingham is editor of SPJ’s Quill magazine. He quit smoking on December 31, 2009 and to his knowledge has not become one of “those” non-smokers. Twitter: @scottleadingham.

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