Barnard Collier

Inside Media: Live from Woodstock

August 15, 2009

Guest: Barnard Collier

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

Covering a rock concert amid a sea of 500,000 people would pose a challenge in the new media age. Imagine doing it 40 years ago before cell phones, laptops and digital film. Unthinkable? Not if you’re former New York Times reporter Barnard Collier.

Collier was one of the few reporters at the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. He was there for recreation, because his editors hadn’t planned on covering the event. Collier convinced them otherwise.

"I told them this is one helluva story," he said.

Initially, Collier’s editors wanted him to describe Woodstock as "a catastrophe waiting to happen," but he refused. The Times relented after he gained the support of one of the paper’s top editors.

Collier described his decision as one of the most important he’s ever made, because he wanted Woodstock to be seen for what it was rather than viewed through the preconceptions of others.

"That still happens today with a lot of stories," he said. "There are a lot of preconceptions back on the desk."

Once Collier had the angle, reporting and filing the story would take some ingenuity. There was a trailer with several working phones, so he commandeered one. He was also with Times photographer Maggie Castellano, and the two worked as a team, making loops around the crowd. They pieced the coverage together by reporting on what they saw and interviewing the crowd and the police.

But sending a story to the desk back then meant calling the desk.

"You had to dictate in your head what you were going to say. A lady at the other end would take notes. You had to put in the periods and question marks and double spell everything," he said.

Collier also remembers spoon-feeding a lot of information and defining words like "groovy" and "reefer." But in defense of the Times, he noted that the whole counterculture vocabulary was just coming into public consciousness, so several things had to be explained.

Eventually, three or four more Times reporters were helicoptered in at Collier’s urging. Collier was working hard and having fun but told his editors, "Look, I can’t cover it all, it’s a city."

"Inside Media" is produced by the Newseum and is open to all visitors. Seating is on a space-available basis.

"Woodstock at 40," the Newseum’s newest exhibit, is on display through Dec. 31, 2009.

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