Newspaper history and traditions mean something to me. When you’ve dreamed of working at a paper since the third grade, your head is filled with romantic ideas of what it must be like.
I never really got to experience newspapers in those glory days. My first year as a reporter coincided with the first year in decades many newspapers made less money than the year before. Then, my moderate tech background, mixed with equal parts fearlessness and wild imagination, immediately had me working on the internet side of newspapers.
On the web, we were told to change everything. Nothing was sacred. The problem was that so many parts of a newspaper were sacred to me. In 1996, my fellow net nerds figured out how to add reader comments to our paper’s online stories.
I’m sorry about that. I really am.
But it made me wonder if editorial pages were about to really change.
When everyone has a voice, would it change the power of opinions in a newspaper? If online, we called people who posted anonymously “trolls,” what did that say about unsigned opinions in a newspaper? More importantly, if opinions were now everywhere and super easy to access, would things like newspaper endorsements even matter like they did a century ago? Or at least since AOL?
As much as I love tradition and respect the past, the evolving nature of both technology and culture means that some old-school traditions have to go away. Even ones I revered. They just don’t work anymore.
That brings us to last Sunday. An endorsement ran in our newspaper that brought up a bunch of traditional notions. There’s the one about the line between church and state that demands newsrooms don’t have anything to do with editorial pages and certainly would never help with those kinds of dark arts. Another is that newspaper endorsements simply represent the “newspaper,” not saying whose opinion it is or who wrote it.
When someone asks me what I think about something that ran in the newspaper’s editorial pages, I’ve always proudly said that I not only hadn’t read it, that I never even bothered to read “those” pages. Ever. Why? It may have started with that deep-seated church and state sentiment, but it eventually became a whole lot more because I’ve always envisioned a newspaper as a community’s connective tissue.
In my mind, newspapers united people over important issues or to help celebrate awesome achievements or even to mourn the passing of someone important to us all. And in today’s highly polarized world, opinion pages seemed to be filled with mostly the things that made us different instead of the things that made us the same. It felt like editorial pages were where divisiveness lived.
There were things that ran in last Sunday’s paper that I’ve been telling people about for weeks. People were going to love these stories and photos and graphics. The editorial page was not only not in my mind, I couldn’t care less about it.
Until I needed to care about it.
I’d never considered values and empathy to be political platforms. I was raised to believe that you help others. Decency was never tied to party affiliation, it was only tied to having a sense of humanity and a shared idea that goodness matters.
After I got a couple hundred emails telling me what a horrible human I was, I knew I was going to have to read the endorsement. Dread and sadness filled me. It had nothing to do with R’s or D’s or candidates. Who you vote for is your business. These were values that didn’t align with mine or anyone else I know in our newsroom or even across our newspaper.
Back when I was in Boy Scouts, I was never taught that bad behavior is considered acceptable if the economics pencil out. But it was much more than that. A few hours later, a colleague posted that reading the backlash against the newspaper we loved was painful, but not as painful as reading the words that caused it.
With those words simply attributed to The Spokesman-Review, it became clear things should be different from here on out. There are some newspaper traditions we shouldn’t just be OK dumping, we should openly embrace throwing them out as outdated relics.
The irony is I had pitched this idea to our publisher a few years ago on a roadtrip to a newspaper conference. The idea was remarkably simple: If we give our readers the facts, we don’t have to tell them what to think. They can come to their own conclusions.
Instead, we’d focus on the things that only a local newspaper can give you, because we live here. We’d also make the editorial pages much more about our community’s thoughts – a mirror that reflected itself – meaning more letters and columns from people who live here. And when we did write about our thoughts on a topic, we would always say whose opinion it was from.
The point was that our opinions really should be from our community and we shouldn’t be afraid to throw out traditions like unsigned editorials. When you get rid of the things that no longer matter, you can zero in on the things that are essential.
Getting better isn’t just about what you do, but about what you don’t do.
So we are no longer running unsigned editorials and we are dropping endorsements.
The journalists I am so lucky to work with every day do all they can to emphasize objectivity, truthfulness, fairness and decency. Despite our shortcomings as human beings and biases we come by naturally and culturally, each person in our newsroom strives to recognize and acknowledge our limitations and overcome them to document the living history of our community.
Telling the compelling narrative of your neighbors through smart reporting, great writing, detailed photos and smart editing is the most noble job I can think of. And thankless.
As hokey as it sounds, journalism is a calling. You’ve gotta be more than a little crazy to do this. The stress is terrible, the pay is awful and you mostly get yelled at every day by your readers. And that’s the best part: readers care, even if it’s at a relatively high volume.
None of this works without readers. More than any of you probably know.
We now have one of the largest newsrooms in the nation for a daily, regional newspaper, especially those our size, but even bigger than papers in much larger cities. That is largely because of the incredible support from this newspaper’s readers. Advertising no longer can pay all of the bills, so we turn more and more to you all to ask for help so that we can keep doing this. If you cancel your subscription, then journalists will go away.
No one is getting rich over here. Trust me, the one color of ink we’re never running out of over here is red.
Yet you have helped us add a new health reporter whose coverage becomes more important each day, a second reporter in Olympia to help us watch over those in the Capitol who definitely need a little more oversight right now, and a third to live in Washington, D.C., who helps us understand what exactly the stuff they’re doing over there means to all of us over here.
That’s the one tradition we should never overlook: Our readers are why we do all of this.