2020 has been a year of lost encounters, and lost encounters mean lost stories
A telephone number is not a contact; a contact is not a source. The hierarchy of relationships in journalism has always mattered. It’s one thing to be able to give someone a call; it’s another that they pick up the phone; and a third still that they trust you enough to speak to you.
We’re coming into the second full week of December, typically that week of the year that, as a reporter, you’ve been invited to a load of Christmas drinks. And, having bitched and moaned for years about how false and stuffy, noisy and awkward they are, you notice now quite how much you miss them when they’re gone.
I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and even if we’ve not met, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I’m an extrovert. In recent years, it’s been fashionable to say that you’re an introvert – that even if you live a social and busy life, there’s been something winning about claiming that you draw reserves of strength, peace and wisdom from within. We extroverts have felt shallow by comparison. This year, I’ve learned that – shallow or not – I draw energy and inspiration, ideas and understanding from the meetings that I have in person with people – from old friends to chance encounters.
And as we get closer to the end of 2020, I’ve been struck by how much I’ve been invigorated by this exceptional year, how much I’ve learned remotely, how much I’ve connected digitally. I’ve felt radicalised by the unfairness, I’ve felt enraged by the reality gap. And in response, I suppose, it’s been a big year for ideas: metroism and devolution; Bretton Woods 2.0; hydrogen, CCS at scale, methane monitoring; the end of exams; and on it goes.
And yet, as I come to the end of this year, I’m struck and worried by what we’ve missed, what we haven’t seen, what’s gone unreported. We’ve lost sight of the rest of the world. We’ve largely lost sight of the places in our own country that don’t touch our own lives. And it feels sometimes that we’ve lost sight of other people. This year, when I think about it, has been a year marked by some of the biggest stories of my working life: Covid-19, George Floyd, Biden and Brexit. But it’s also been the year of the fewest stories. And it strikes me that it’s not just the fact that these big stories have sucked up all the journalistic oxygen, not just that they’ve dominated the news bulletins and the front pages. Our journalism – all of our journalism – feels as though it’s got thinner. We’ve met fewer people and we’ve had fewer stories to tell. I realise this isn’t the extrovert in me worrying, it’s the journalist: and if 2020 was defined by one story, then a measure of success next year is that there will be many more.