Enjoying the Stites of New York

I had lunch yesterday with Tom Stites at the terrific Ipanema Restaurant near 46th & 5th. A half century ago, Tom and I were schoolmates at Pembroke Country Day School in Kansas City (Pem-Day). We were also acolytes at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, where Tom was Chief Acolyte, or whatever that teenaged notable was called. Hotdamn, we were skilled at lighting and snuffing them candles!

Tom had issues with his Chief Acolyte role, and those issues and their fallout are a telling insight into the remarkable freedom of thought and philosophical equanimity of the late 1950’s. Even in Kansas City. Tom asked the prelate assigned to the acolyte corps (young Christian soldiers!) if his beliefs might cause a problem. Tom confessed that he wasn’t sure if he believed in God. The ordained leader of our little flock assured Tom that questioning his faith was almost a prerequisite to authenticity in the church. After all, any boob could spend a life in thoughtless obeisance to an invisible Deity who, wrapped in metaphorical blue robes with a reassuringly paternalistic patina of imputed authority, held absolute judgment over all creatures. That blind faith was trivial compared to the heavy lifting required by the robust faith of the Church’s true leaders. They were doomed to a lifetime of questing and yearning and fearing and wondering if they could trust this palpable, soaring and anguished faith that gripped their heart, but periodically devastated their soul.

In short, a 16-year-old Chief Acolyte with existential questions was honored for his authenticity as he served at Saint Andrews’ Episcopal Church on Wornall Road in Kansas City in 1957. I wonder if they are as wise today.

In the mid-60’s, Tom went off to Williams College in Massachussets and I to Wesleyan University In Connecticut: two of the so-called “Little Three” (with Amherst). Tom became a journalist and served as Dan Gillmor‘s mentor at the Kansas City Times. He also became a jazz critic and, in fact, is in town from Boston this week for a reunion of the people who made Jazz Magazine an institution in the 1970’s. Jazz was a big deal for Tom and me, but I envy his ability to turn it into a paying gig.

It’s interesting that Tom ended up in Theology after all that. He serves as Publisher of the UU World Magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Yep: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mouthpiece. Currently, he’s on sabbatical taking courses at the Harvard Divinity School.

OSS 1, anda 2, anda 3 . . .

I often wonder if Jazz isn’t the best metaphor of Open Source Software (OSS1) and my favorite extension of it, Open Source Society (OSS2). All three of those artistic expressions assume that the right artist will contribute the right riff at the right moment and that their (our) contributions will be captured (by technology) so that successors will be able to embrace and extend our work.

That reflection requires me to dwell on how ordinary we all are. Although Tom and I benefited from the one of the finest secondary educations ever offered on the planet (albeit by a small, self-conscious and insecure little midwestern school–part of its special alchemy), neither of us has embraced the arrogance that marks so many people who have been educated almost as well. Tom and I (and Dan Gillmor nor, I think, John Readey, another KansasCitian and Pemsy-Daisy) have an innate respect for the ordinary condition. In that ordinary condition, we discern the salvation of humankind.

Although any of us, given the opening, might be tempted to throw our lot in with the cool kids–the Wall Street Machers and (shudder) Cheneys of the world–we understand at a gut level that our society will thrive or fail on the strengths of We The (average) People, AKA We the Media. This does not and can not create a Tyranny of the Mediocre, because the foundation of this new model rests on an emerging way of perceiving excellence: that “quality” is not the provenance of the few and judgmental but rather the collaborative insight of the many and thoughtful. As James Surowiecki has taught us, it’s not the average of opinions that matters, it’s the vector of many opinions.

So, how do you forge excellent insights from the rough and ready, plainspoken sensibilities of the people who are closest to the problem and farthest from the arrogance? I suggest that it’s their jazz. There’s something about the voicing of a jazz solo that conveys its authenticity, especially when it’s got the support of the rest of the ensemble: Preamble. Framing. Resolution. You know: all that jazz. Traditional media delivers snapshots of truths, but the web gives us immediate acces to what I wrote yesterday and the day before, etc: a three-dimensional picture of where I and my “facts” are coming from. Like this graphic from Apple:

As an editorial model, Tom Stites isn’t ready to buy it. He’s run enough big-city newspaper desks that he knows that editors must trust their writers in order to have a reliable flow of articles that their readers can rely on. On tight deadlines and uncertain facts, your only foundation for trust is that you work with these same people day in and out, and that your paychecks have the same signature. But most of us here in the BSphere have faith that the right person will show up with the right contribution. at the right time. Further, we think that the value of that ad hoc contribution will be obvious.

Can a publication be built on “Obviousness”?

That trait of “obviousness” is where old-school journalists and web citizens diverge. Is obviousness tangible and verifiable or is it just subjectivity? An old-school editor like Tom needs to work with a staff of trusted reporters because he assumes he cannot have direct insight into the material the reporter presents. The editor is dependent on trust: there’s no presumption that he can verify and ratify reporters’ work. But maybe that’s the world before Technorati and Google and WikiPedia. Blogger/bloggees feel that a few minutes of drilling down will clarify the general contour of a story which, when combined with the web reporter’s authentic voice and others’ reporting on the same or tangential issues, gives us a kind of facial recognition of authenticity. I’d love to see a study on the conformance of that expectation with real facts confirmed objectively.

Now that would be a clinical trial worth its weight in terabytes. Especially because Tom’s got a killer idea for publishing to the people who matter most.

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