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A toast to newspaper readers — with H2O

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I’m moving on, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say thanks.

I’m leaving the newspaper for a new project. My friends at the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, who care about these issues as much as I do, have kindly offered me a home to work on a book about the future of water and the communities in southwestern North America that depend on it. The folks at Island Press have agreed to publish it once I finish.

Writing in the Atlantic a few years ago, Michael Hirschorn described the “semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind” we journalists are privileged to live. With your help, I’ve spent more than 30 years being curious, learning things and trying to explain them to you as best I can.

Pushing off from Lee’s Ferry into the depths of the Grand Canyon, or deep in scientific literature about tree rings at El Malpais, or staring from the deck of the Apache Point Observatory’s big telescope into the great cold depth of the night sky, it was hard not to feel a bit sheepish, like it was some sort of scam. I get paid for this?

Thanks for that opportunity.

I learned early in my career that journalism is a modest endeavor. One of the great lessons came at my first daily newspaper job, at the Pasadena Star-News in the mid-1980s, when I tried to debunk what seemed to me to be inflated claims about the size of the Rose Parade crowd.

For years, we had taken the official pronouncements for granted: A million people lined Colorado Boulevard each Jan. 1 to watch the famous California parade.

That changed one afternoon when I stood three colleagues against the newsroom wall, shoulder to shoulder, and measured how much space they took up.

Peter Apanel, a character who organized Pasadena’s irreverent Doo Dah Parade, had questioned the claim, and suggested a simple thought experiment. How many people would it take, standing shoulder to shoulder, to line the Rose Parade route, up one side and down the other? How many rows deep would such a crowd have to be?

Back at my desk with calculator, paper, and data from my Apanel-inspired experiment, it took me about a minute to conclude it was impossible for a million people to fit in the sidewalks that lined Colorado Boulevard. It was not even close.

My editors loved it, and we published a couple of stories, including our own attempt at a serious estimate based on real counts: 300,000, tops.

I moved to Albuquerque to join the Journal in 1990, the year after this journalistic triumph, and I made a habit of reading the Rose Parade story when it moved on the Associated Press wire every year. Every year, officials announced that a million people had lined Colorado Boulevard to watch the Rose Parade.

Year after year, my Star-News colleagues doggedly stuck to the truth. Year after year, sunny officialdom ignored our muckraking. It was a humbling demonstration of the limitations of what we do.

But in recent years, I began to notice a change. More and more Southern California publications tackled the issue. In 2009, the big Los Angeles Times returned to the topic, joining my former colleagues at the little Pasadena Star-News in questioning the official estimate. Battered by skepticism, officialdom backed away from the claim.

This year, “million people” references were few and far between. Eventually, the idea that there weren’t a million people at the Rose Parade stuck.

The size of the Rose Parade crowd is of no great import. But as a young journalist trying to figure out how to get ideas into people’s brains, the experience offered an important lesson. It takes more than a single explanation to get through, both to officialdom and the general public. In terms of the audience for what we do, there is in my mind little difference between the two.

If you’ve noticed a repetitiveness in my work in this newspaper over the past two decades – climate change is real, we need to recognize the limitations of our water supply in the face of drought and a growing population, lather, rinse, repeat – this is why. Each story is different, touching on bits of new knowledge about what the science is telling us and how we as a community are responding. But the core message is the most important thing.

The universe of people who have patiently explained things to me is so vast as to be effectively infinite. You know who you are. Thanks.

Most important, thanks to you, for padding out in the morning to pick the newspaper up from your driveway.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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