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How is the Beacon like Steve Martin?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2010 - Steve Martin's appearance at the 92nd Y in New York City caused such a ruckus last week that in less time than it takes to say "happy feet" it had become the intelligensias' equivalent of South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's hollering, "You lie" at President Obama last year. The protest at the Y, altogether quieter and more genteel and transmitted via Twitter rather than shouted in person, was no less volatile and evolved into a ruckus big enough to be discussed on NPR and for Martin to write an op-ed published by The New York Times on Tuesday.

The central issue was this: Change, a condition everyone professes to welcome, is, for most of us, a recipe for emotional discomfort. The situation was this: Martin and his interviewer, Deborah Solomon, were engaged by the culturally celebrated YMHA (Young Men's Hebrew Association) on New York City's East Side to talk about Martin's new novel, "An Object of Beauty." There was no misrepresentation of the topic of the discussion, and pretty much anyone with any sense of cultural mythology knows the Y is something of an Olympus for gods of the brain. Nevertheless, the audience expected something quite different, and then the management of the 92nd Y itself exacerbated the whole mess.

Martin and Solomon discussed what they were engaged to discuss, and that was "An Object of Beauty." The audience - a good representation of it anyway - got antsy and began to send written comments and Tweets to the Y suggesting that if they were to get their money's worth, they wanted Martin the goof, not Martin the art collector and artist.

Nobody in the universe loves Martin's "King Tut" more than I. In times of trouble, I go there and unabashedly LOL. But I know also that Martin's Tut show, while enshrined on YouTube is also locked up in a Martin's artistic pyramid somewhere, never to be brought to the stage again.

Clearly, Martin has moved on, he has changed, and consciously or subconsciously, he has followed the wisdom of St. Paul, who wrote to the Christians at Corinth to say when he was a child he spoke as one, but when he became a man, he put away childish things. Martin, in his career as a performer then, and a public intellectual now, personifies the evolution described Paul's observation.

The Y, however, behaved extraordinarily, umm, childishly by declaring that the Solomon-Martin dialogue didn't meet its standards and offered to give the audience its money back in the form of coupons for future programs. Then, seeing how lame that looked, and how profoundly it had insulted its speakers, backed away from its initial reaction and apologized to Solomon and Martin, who had responded in the meantime with civil and entirely rational responses, and bewilderment.

Change was the foe. Change is hard to accept. One of the big hurdles in bringing readers to the Beacon has been an aversion to giving up print - giving up that admittedly sweet experience of sneaking outside in your nightclothes to collect the paper, then holding a paper in one's hands and turning its pages over breakfast. Even if that paper is thinner in many ways than the paper that landed in the bushes a decade ago, many cling to its texture, its appearance, the memory and the myth it summons forth.

News organizations such as the Beacon have embraced a tectonic change in the news business, however. Recognizing that for many reasons the old, commercial model is gradually falling apart, we - and publications from San Diego to New Haven -- believe in the efficiencies of operating exclusively online. We believe also that journalism should not be contained within the frame of a television or computer monitor or in sheaves of newsprint. We believe that the new model is a definition of eclecticism - using the best of many media to communicate better with readers, and to invite them to communicate with us.

One such means of direct communication is our popular "Beacon and Eggs" series of neighborhood meetings. These meetings begin at 8 in the morning with a light breakfast, and continue at 9 with discussions about life and news and the recipe for a new journalism that we and other public media offer. Tomorrow - Friday, Dec. 10 - we and the Nine Network for Public Media will serve "Beacon and Eggs" up here in our offices at 3655 Olive Street. Everyone is welcome.

At these meetings, you may hear us talk about the Pulitzer brand of journalism, which we at the Beacon believe we have inherited by virtue of our having worked for the Pulitzer Post-Dispatch until a few years ago. Members of our staff share a keen sense of the first Joseph Pulitzer's audacity and wisdom, and share also his belief that reinventions of journalism, when needed, are necessary.

On Sunday, many of us who revere the Pulitzer traditions will mark the 132nd birthday of the Post-Dispatch, and salute the visionary renaissance man who created it. One source of his success, and the foundation of his mighty journalistic legacy, was his ability to examine and to understand the past but to embrace that fearsome quality, change, as well.

At some point in his development as a newsman and a citizen of the world, as he began constructing his elegant Platform, he understood it was time to put aside a dedication to sensationalism that had made a fortune for him, and to bring, into the 20th century, a more mature and respectable approach to journalism - to putting aside childish things.

Although we miss the alchemy of newsprint and ink, miss the Old Steve, we understand, as wise men through the ages have understood, sometimes we have to face up to new realities, and with happy feet, to dance to the music of change.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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