Even small towns need to see the good, bad and ugly

May 1, 2012


Responsible journalism has challenges.

Last month four towns in Maine lost their newspapers.

The publisher said it was the result of a troubled economy. Others believe the publisher lost interest in print media.

In the final analysis, though, the cause is not as important as the effect.

And to gauge the effect, you need only listen to the words of Brian Harden, mayor of Rockland, ME, where the newspaper had been published for 163 years:

“I’m shocked and saddened,” Harden told the Bangor Daily News.

“I loved my Courier, whether it was to read the obituaries or to see who had been arrested. A community our size needs to have a newspaper.

“Whether or not I liked what was written, it was important that something was written.”

Those words speak volumes about the unique relationship between a newspaper and its community.

Most of what goes into our newspapers can be characterized as good news—the Easter bunny passing out candy, the scout projects, the community fundraisers, the response to growth.

Yet with regularity we publish stories that can be characterized as negative. It could be a tragedy, a contentious public issue, a crime spree, or just a story that someone would prefer to keep quiet.

That’s what makes journalism, especially in a small community, particularly difficult.

We believe most of our readers wouldn’t have it any other way.

They want to know if someone is dumping septic waste near a stream, even if that someone sits in the next pew at church.

They want to know if a pedophile is arrested in town, even if the offender is in the same coffee klatch.

They want to know if a discarded cigarette starts a damaging grass fire even if the smoker is a next-door neighbor.

The journalist, though, will bear the wrath of the dumper, the pedophile and the careless smoker, who feel the shame and notoriety of having their names in the paper.

Even if their children have been featured for academic achievement or their spouses for community volunteerism, they are likely to carry the grudge of discomfort or humiliation for years.

After many years, those of us who attempt to practice responsible journalism in small communities can build quite a stable of detractors.

With that stable, the continuing practice of responsible journalism is impacted as potential news sources shy away from the journalists.

Compounding the problem for newspapers is that some in the stable of detractors are advertisers, or potential advertisers, and advertising is the lifeblood of the newspaper business.

History is replete with examples of newspapers that have lost advertising customers because the news contained information that was less than flattering, or maybe even just uncomfortable, for the advertiser.

In our very small, very rural community, the latest example came in early April when two landowners sought zoning changes necessary before construction of a multi-million dollar grain terminal.

The company planning the terminal is by far the largest private employer in our community of 2,000, with five grain elevators, three fertilizer plants, and three service stations, two of them with convenience stores.

Yet from past experiences, we’ve known it is a company that doesn’t like publicity until it’s ready to make an announcement.

So when the local zoning board received information from landowners, not the company, we were careful to ask the company manager for comment.

As we expected, our messages were not returned, and the story, based on testimony at a public meeting, ran without the company’s perspective.

Also as we expected, the company manager responded after the fact with direct instructions to never present him with another ad call.

We regret that response. But imagine what would happen if a newspaper was to cave in to the extortion of a customer who threatened to withhold advertising if we publish an unwelcome story.

We would soon have the reputation that our news columns are for sale; that if you have the money you can keep something out of the paper, or worse, taint what goes into the paper.

Our readers would soon come to believe that the content of the newspaper would be slanted based on the interests of the advertisers.

The result might provide short-term benefit for the advertiser, but it clearly would not serve the best interests of the community or of responsible journalism.

That’s why we do our best to maintain clear separation between news and advertising, to run stories that meet the “news” standard even when a good customer may be alienated.

It’s a challenge different from most other small town businesses, but we see it as critical to having an informed and engaged citizenry.

And we see an informed and engaged citizenry is critical to having a vital community.

It’s why our founding fathers placed so much importance on free speech and a free press, and it’s what sets free countries apart from those in which the information made available to citizens is controlled by those in power.

Those freedoms are as important in small communities as they are in population centers.

And that’s why it’s important that something is written whether or not everyone likes what is written.

STEVE ANDRIST is the publisher of the Crosby (ND) Journal. He can be reached at stevea@crosbynd.com.