I’m at an age and stage in life where I don’t tend to buy green bananas. But one thing that those who know me best will tell you is I’ve always been game to try something new.
Perhaps it’s that old reporter’s instinct to run towards a breaking story. Perhaps it reflects a restless soul, or an undying optimism that change can be a force for good. Perhaps it’s that I remain as curious as ever, continuously humbled by all I have yet to learn. Perhaps it’s all of that, or something else for which I don’t have the wisdom or depth of self-reflection enough to diagnose. But whatever the reason, here I am again, ready to jump into the unknown.
As the election season wore on, as the faint flickers of hope started growing that America could enter a new chapter in its fraught and inconsistent history, I wondered how I could best share my voice, how I could best encourage a measured, thoughtful, empathic, and knowledgeable discourse with my fellow citizens and others around the world, and how I could best learn from what others had to say and what they were thinking about these perilous times.
I will be candid, I’ve been a bit restive. Penned in by a deadly pandemic, and now in my 90th year, I had to be honest with myself about what I could accomplish. My days of jetting off at a moment’s notice to an international hotspot have come to an end. (At least for now. I will always look for that opportunity). But with age comes experience, if not necessarily wisdom. And as I watch a churning news cycle, as I see broader historical narratives echoing, I believe that we are going to be in for another unprecedented year of upheaval and opportunity.
It’s a heckuva story, and I want to follow it and cover it. And frankly, I’d love to do that as part of a community.
In recent years, as many of you know, I have turned my attention to social media. First it was Facebook, and later Twitter. I was reluctant in both instances, unsure of what to make of the new platforms. Working with my longtime collaborator Elliot Kirschner, we sketched out a strategy that started with me not trying to be something I wasn’t. We were told that Facebook posts should be short. But I had things I wanted to say. So we made them long. And people seemed to like them, and share them. What gave me the most satisfaction was reading the comments. Not because of what they said about what I wrote as much as the dialogue people had with each other. I had heard a lot about the problem of internet “trolls.” But for the most part I have seen in these comments kindness, respectfulness, and open-mindedness. And I learned a lot from reading what others have had to say. It has been affirming, and it’s given me a source of pride.
After the success of Facebook, Twitter felt like an even crazier idea. Weren’t we doing well with long posts? What can we say in under 280 characters? Well the truth is, I’ve always appreciated the syncopation that comes from short thoughts. They’re often harder to write. How do you pack something significant into something so limited? It became a test, and then we realized we could lean into the challenge. How pithy could we be? Would people “get it?” Then we saw an opportunity for me to add some other elements of my personality, in particular humor. It has been, and continues to be, a lot of fun.
But amidst it all, something felt missing. The longer I watched the role Facebook has played in destabilizing our democracy and amplifying conflict, the harder it was to tell myself a story that my corner of cyberspace was “different,” so all was fine. I liked the reach of Facebook and the fact that good, decent people seemed to find me there in large numbers. But there was also the issue of the algorithm. I couldn’t tell why some pieces reached more readers than others. And Twitter, while better, would never satisfy my desire to write in depth, or share other forms of multimedia. And it also is controlled by an algorithm.
I know enough about online discourse to understand that divisiveness and pique drive numbers. There have been many times Elliot and I considered a Tweet or a phrasing in Facebook knowing it would generate tremendous traffic and deciding it wasn’t the voice I wanted to project. It’s not about clicks for me.
One idea of how to share my thoughts was to write another book. Our last one, WHAT UNITES US, seemed to not only find an audience when it came out, but is in the midst of a near-miraculous resurgence, thanks undoubtedly to many of you. A new book may still be in the offing. But a book takes a long time to write and wouldn’t be published for at least another year. I’m impatient. While I have written several books, I will always consider myself a reporter rather than an author. I like deadlines measured in days, not months.
Once the election came and went, as I started to see the pending inauguration (nevermind the madness in between), I became more determined to find a means for developing a new method for communication. That’s when I started hearing about this thing called Substack. It was yet another “platform.” But it was a form of direct communication, a way for me to build and cultivate that community that I feel is so important.
I consulted with Elliot and my grandson Martin. They were enthusiastic and would partner with me on the endeavor. I talked to other friends and family, especially my wife Jean, and she had questions too, but felt that the positives outweigh any potential negatives. And anyway, me being restive around the house is a prescription for mischief. She thought I should give it a try.
So here I am, here we are. The fact that you’re here means that you’ve found your way into joining me on my next great experiment. How much you might want to be readers or more involved participants is up to you. But I really am more excited about hearing from all of you than even having a place to share what I want to say. After all, I already know what I think.
I want to lay out some expectations and bring up the sensitive issue of paid subscriptions. One thing I can promise you is I will always try to be as transparent as possible. The reality is I don’t know yet how this will turn out, how much I feel I can write, what forms the posts will take. To start, I am going to aim for one significant note a week. And I will publish one other type of content per week. It may be another note, or audio, or a prompt for discussion, or all of that, or none of that. I will have to figure it out. And I always welcome your thoughts and guidance. I may find out I want to do more.
The weekly note will be free. I know times are hard for many people, and I don’t want to put that behind a paywall. But Substack does offer subscriptions by the month or year. And I do intend to limit some features of my effort here to paying members. I’m a reporter who got lucky, very lucky. I don’t have to worry about a roof over my head or food on the table. The truth is I have no idea what the income will end up being, but the goal here is to create something sustainable. I want to be able to support the people who have stuck by me and worked with me. I want to reinvest in my Substack efforts, to bring in other voices to add to my own. I also want to invest in other projects, like documentaries. I want to grow these efforts so that they can become bigger than myself, to highlight different voices and different points of view. The more support you are able to provide, the more I will be able to do.
I hope many of you will do the paying subscription, but signing up is free. What you will get if you sign up are emails, from me, in your mailbox. I am not thinking of them as essays (that’s far too formal), or news reports per se (although they will often be about the news). I guess they’re officially called newsletters. But I would prefer we think of them as plain old letters. From me to you, delivered directly. And there will be a means for you to write back, in comment sections or other forums we can figure out. I hope our discussions will be inspirations for reflection and further dialogue. I don’t want this to be a bubble, more like a hub. I hope those of you who join our community will use it as a way to reach out to engage with others.
One final note, I am calling this effort “Steady.” It is a favorite word, and the subject of one of the essays in WHAT UNITES US. These are dangerous times. But if we lean on each other, listen to one another, and push back against the forces of chaos, with steadiness, I believe our next chapter can be a special one. I’m ready to turn that page. I hope you will join me.