LIVINGSTON, NJ – On Thursday, the Livingston Public Library hosted a lecture by Mark Di Ionno, a Star-Ledger columnist who has spent 35 years as a journalist. The talk revolved around what he has discovered about New Jersey and its history, his career as a journalist and book author and the state of journalism in today’s world.
Di Ionno said that he started his career as a sports columnist for the New York Times, but noticed that sports and entertainment were starting to dominate the news. With this in mind, he made the move to “a more authentic type of journalism,” by writing about ordinary people and the things that happened to them.
He said he moved back to his native state of New Jersey “to immerse [himself] in the culture and history of the place [he] was from.”
The author of three non-fiction books about New Jersey, Di Ionno said he found his inspiration through his daily life. The idea for his book Backroads, New Jersey came from taking the long way home from an interview in which he started at an unfamiliar end of county road and ended up in his hometown. He said that he realized then—that there were many back roads in New Jersey that people probably drove on every day, but never realized how far they stretched.
He raised his two oldest children in Madison, and said that although they did learn about the Revolutionary War, they did not learn about New Jersey’s history and role during that war. This got him thinking, and when he was driving on different roads all over the state, he started to notice how much history had taken place on some of them, especially the ones closer to Trenton. He came up with the idea for A Guide to New Jersey’s Revolutionary War Trail while doing these drives, and slowly was able to compile a book that shows and explains 350 Revolutionary War sites throughout New Jersey.
Di Ionno’s most recent book, The Last Newspaperman, follows a 1930s reporter who must deal with the increasingly crime and celebrity obsessed news media. The book revolves around some of the more major events in New Jersey’s news history including: the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Hindenburg disaster, and the War of the Worlds broadcast.
According to Di Ionno, news in the 1930s and the news of today aren’t that different. “The technology changes,” Di Ionno explained. “The salacious details change. But they’re all the same stories.”
At the heart of Di Ionno’s discussion was the idea that “journalism should be about humanity.” As an adjunct professor at Rutgers, he said he tries to teach his students to keep balance in their coverage of topics, no matter what those topics are. “The media’s narrative makes a difference in a case,” he said, speaking about some of the articles on which he has reported. “You can’t undo a narrative.”
During a question and answer session after the talk, Di Ionno fielded questions about the fate of the Star-Ledger, the state of local newspapers, the idea that news about violence begets more violence, and what student journalists want to do when they enter the work force. He ended by telling the audience what he tells his students: “You are part of the community. The moment you become an insider, you fail.”
Livingston resident Doreen Mollenhauer, who attended the talk, said she enjoyed listening to Di Ionno speak, “I’m a regular reader…He is very observant of life and things around him. He knows Jersey up, down and sideways.”
Chris Demidowich, the librarian who organized the program and was part of the group that invited Di Ionno to speak said, “He loves New Jersey, and feels people don’t know enough about it…He shows you things you may not go out of your want to find out about, but it’s good to learn about things that are not your usual fare.”
The Livingston Public Library will be hosting more events about New Jersey and the history of the state through the end of 2014.