A friend of mine is fond of recalling a rancher who told him in his youth, “Son, never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” My friend, who is a futurist, uses this quote as a reminder that human beings often overestimate the amount of change that can happen in the short term, while underestimating what’s possible in the long term.
Twenty years ago, I had a clear view of what I wanted this newspaper to be: a strong, self-sustaining company, dedicated to first-rate reporting and writing about subjects often neglected in the mainstream media. Since I was all of 27 at the time, I thought that goal might take about three years to achieve. Year after year, for the nearly 10 years I spent in the editor’s chair, we optimistically trotted out our latest three-year break-even plan. The distance ahead was longer than I had imagined it could possibly be. Yet, steadily, we made progress, eventually outlasting all of our competitors. I sometimes think that I learned two lessons from my years at The Independent: what could be accomplished through force of will, and what could not be accomplished through force of will.
Now, when I look back, I’m struck not by the clear view I had, but rather by all that I did not and could not see about the distance ahead–not just for our fledgling paper, but more importantly for journalism, politics and society. The radical changes in the media ecology of those times were cable television, videocassette recorders and the very first personal computers. This onslaught of new technologies and big media prompted our elegant columnist Garrett Epps to proclaim in our first issue against “the vast, tinny, four-color satellite-downlinked blare,” promising instead “no more news from nowhere.” The 24-hour onslaught of voice mail, e-mail, mobile phones and instant messaging that would transform the context for today’s journalism was beyond my imagining.
From the vantage point of the early 1980s, when not only AT&T but also the Soviet Union were still intact, who could have believed that we might one day look back on the Cold War with nostalgia for its relative simplicity and stability? As editor of The Independent, I was called the most common epithets of the time by those who wanted to undermine us: communist and queer. I labored in my earnest way to edit a paper that might transcend commonplace mudslinging. Maybe I worked so hard because one of the epithets was true about me, even if it had nothing to do with our journalism. It was years before I mustered the courage, even in the safe confines of The Independent‘s community, to say out loud to my colleagues, through tears, that I am a lesbian; I never summoned the will to do so in print until now. Who would have believed the world could change so much in relatively few years that I could find my way from paralyzing fear (for myself, for the paper) to a state where I now feel ashamed for being ashamed? Only years of stubborn and brave activism from many people (many of whom were part of The Independent‘s community) made it possible for someone like me to heal. They had a clear view, God bless them, even if it hasn’t been a short distance.
What, now, of the distance ahead? “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have entered the third millennium through a gate of fire,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Looking into the future today, it’s hard to see anything other than that fire continuing to burn. But what of the more hopeful visions, the ones that seem so unimaginable now?
In my lifetime, I see a woman elected president of the United States, not soon, but eventually. I see the dream of pluralism realized in this nation, slowly and painfully, but steadily nevertheless. (A wonderful California demographer watches the mating of young people and calls the result over the next decades “the great enfolding.”) I see the Internet helping to catalyze great global citizen movements, the likes of which we have never seen. (One day, the history books will record this winter’s coordinated global peace movement as the early indicator of something quite new in human history.) I see a new generation of social entrepreneurs, all over the world, creating new ideas about how to address enduring human problems–and over many decades creating what will one day be called a public benefit economy, the 21st century’s answer to the frayed 20th century social contract. I see the flowering of alternatives to journalism (in addition to alternative journalism)–the superb research, reporting and images that can be produced and shared by nonprofits and citizens who 20 years ago had no outlets except through the media. And I see The Independent‘s staff, generation after generation, learning how to report and write in compelling ways, questioning comfortable assumptions, confronting persistent challenges and celebrating life–all the while knitting together their community of Triangle readers.
“Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” To be sure. And never underestimate the power of a dream lived with courage and integrity.
Katherine Fulton now lives in northern California with her partner, Katharine Kunst. She is a senior practitioner at Global Business Network (www.gbn.com), a small firm that helps organizations anticipate and shape their futures. After many years working on the future of journalism, her work in recent years has focused on the future of nonprofits and philanthropy.