Mark LaFlamme: Stuff I swore I'd never do as a reporter

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The guy on Walnut Street was talking fast and pointing every which way, frantically trying to describe the experience of having bullets flying over his head.

I scribbled as quickly as I could to keep up, but this guy was talking in such a rat-a-tat-tat fury of words, I was afraid the notebook pages would catch fire.

“Hold up,” I told him. “Let me get my recorder out.”

It was at that moment that the ghost of the police beat past came flapping out of history to shake its ghastly head and go tsk, tsk, tsk all over Walnut Street.

Many moons ago, I swore — SWORE! — I would never use a recorder to report my stories. The truth of it is that the very first time I tried to use a recorder back in 1994, the thing let me down and the full interview was lost.

That’s why I never got the Pulitzer, you know.

That’s a true story, yo, but there’s more to it than that. There’s just something pure about jotting notes in a notebook while some wide-eyed witness babbles his breathless story. The pen and notebook somehow connects the reporter directly to the story at hand. It becomes a relationship. The pen seems to dance with the notebook and through those romantic sweeps and sways and squiggles, a story is born.

Or something. The notebook approach is just cooler than the recorder, is what I’m saying. A recorder — in this case the one on my phone — is just a piece of generic equipment manufactured a world away in China where nobody gives two whits about what happens in downtown Lewiston, Maine.

I made a vow decades ago that I would never go the lame recorder route, yet here I am, whipping out that recorder every chance I get and taking the easy way out. I no longer experience the singular joy of trying to read my own ghastly handwriting to deduce whether the breathless man on Walnut Street said, “I was sure I was going to die,” or, “Something smells like pie.”

Now, I just play back the recording over and over, like the big, fat cheater I am, until I get it right. My shame is great. I let technology cheapen me. Again.

Back when social media began to emerge like a nasty rash on the tender buttocks of our world, I used to roll my eyes all the time and promise everyone in earshot that I wanted nothing to do with it.

“Might be fun for sharing cat photos or revealing to y’all what I’m having for dinner,” I would say, chest all puffed out with pride. “But for news? Not me, bubba. I get my news on the street. The street, I tells you! All I need are two legs, two ears and a nub of a pencil with which to write. I don’t even need paper, yo. I’ll scratch those quotes right into my own skin if I have to. Because I’m old school. I’m old school like you read about, bruh!”

Such a boisterous speech from the soap box for a promise so briefly kept.

Back in the day, to get man-on-the-street stuff, I’d actually go out onto the street and you know … get stuff. It would take a while because 90 percent of the people on the street ain’t down with that action, but you’d get there eventually, and when you did, you’d have yourself a story you could be proud of.

Sort of. Some of the time. You’d get paid for it, anyway.

Then one day, for reasons I can’t recall due to all the glue-sniffing, I figured I’d at least try putting what we in the industry refer to as “a query” up on MyFace or SpaceBeard, or whatever was all the rage at the time.

“Say, fellas,” I wrote (probably.) “Do any of you fine people have thoughts on the government’s plan to label Parmesan cheese as a scheduled drug? Gosh, we’d sure like to hear some of your opinions.”

Out on the street? Nobody’s talking about that Parmesan cheese story. They’re too busy working or playing or stabbing one another with homemade shanks. What’s more, you, the reporter, look like an absolute idiot standing out there in the Hannaford parking lot and bugging strangers about cheese. In fact, you look a little bit like a stalker, and if some old lady with a cart full of cat foods blasts you in the face with chemical spray, is anyone going to blame her? No, they’re going to point and laugh.

Ask me how I know.

On social media, though? Put up a query on any topic — and I mean ANY topic — and responses will fall like loud-mouthed hail out of the bright blue sky. You’ll suddenly find yourself in contact with, not just one or two, but DOZENS of self-described experts on both criminal law and canned imitation cheese.

These days, thanks to services like Twitter and Facebook and UniBrow, a reporter can get all the reaction he needs without ever having to remove his feety pajamas, if he’s into that kind of thing. Like the recorder, the social media query cheapens the news-gathering process, yet it’s so dang easy, it’s hard as bubble wrap to put down.

I swore I would never attempt to shoot video at a crime scene, either — that’s what photographers are for, bub — and then some fool put a video camera right there on my phone. Now when I’m out and about, I always feel compelled to at least try to shoot video in case Bigfoot bursts out of the shrubbery or something to join the fray. With my herky-jerky style, though, what I usually end up with are blurry back-and-forth images of my feet and/or extreme close-ups of my gigantic nose.

Stupid technology. I feel like I’ve stayed largely the same and yet have been forced to adapt, against my will, to the advances of time. This is probably how the primates felt when some fool came swinging out of the jungle to demand that they walk upright and get themselves registered on Facebook, already.

It’s all very disappointing. I can only summarize my feelings on these new ways of reporting by reading the poignant thoughts scrawled here in my notebook:

“Something smells like pie.”

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who has taken to social media like a starved rat takes to garbage. Email him at [email protected]

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