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Front Page » August 20, 2013 » Opinion » Staff Column
Published 399 days ago

Staff Column


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Newspapers should be independent of ties

There are a lot of publications out there that call themselves newspapers. But what is it that defines ones that serve a community and others that are only self serving?

Newspapers are generally businesses, that are run to make a profit for their owners. Some owners joke that actually newspapers are non-profit, but unless the people who own them have deep pockets, that kind of return can't go on forever.

Considering that, as one watches the national and world scene, we are beginning to see more and more people buying newspaper businesses, or starting up newspapers, that own many other interests. Some seem to have an intent of influencing their readers toward political and business issues one way or another. If they are up-front about what their publications are for, then so be it. That is part of free speech. But when they try to hide behind the paper, using the publication as a proxy for public relations, there is something wrong with calling the publication a newspaper.

In the early days of newspapers there was a lot of this kind of thing. Newspapers took political stances and even stances on one side of business or another. Often they openly battled about politics and influence right on their front pages. When the News-Advocate and The Sun were being published in this county from 1915 until 1932 (at which point they merged together), each had a strong political stance, one conservative, the other more progressive. They often even commented on how wrong the other paper was.

But what is happening today with many papers is about more than just politics. Corporations and businesses with a vested interest in swaying public opinion are buying up newspapers and even whole chains of media outlets. Many of these owners say, after the purchase, that they will not use their influence to sway the editorial stance of these papers. They say they will have a hands off policy toward editors and reporters. This remains to be seen because in the past when these kinds of purchases have taken place, over a period of time, the writing staffs have been changed to include people that fit more into the corporate mold of the ownership.

This is not to say that all newspapers are not swayed in some way. None of us in this business live in a vacuum. Advertising from other businesses does pay the bills. We can't ignore that. Yet we can't let it rule us either, or we will become just a puppet of those who spend money in our papers.

A few years ago a publisher friend of mine ran into a situation which, in my opinion, he handled well. He almost lost his shirt too. His biggest advertiser was a locally owned department store that anchored the businesses downtown in his small community. As it is with the Sun Advocate he put in the jail bookings each week, being that they are public information. One night the owner of the department stores wife was arrested for a DUI (and later she was found guilty of the offense). The owner of the store demanded that the paper not print the wife's name in the paper.

My friend had a dilemma. He knew the guys temper, but just the same he knew he had to treat everyone in the town the same when it came to jail bookings. He also felt he owed the public information available to the to residents of his town. He told his editor to go ahead and print the name and the charges.

The department store owner was furious and immediately pulled his advertising. Right away my friend felt the pinch in his bottom line. After a few years the owner of the department store realized that he was hurting his own business because he had lost a good way to get the word out about what he carried. During that time they both suffered, and my friend actually had to make some painful cuts due to the omission of his largest revenue source.

However, as far as I am concerned while his profits were nearly zero for a couple of years, it was his finest hour. He had resisted the temptation of concerning himself more with certain loss of revenue than in losing credibility in his community.

Over the years we too have had advertisers who pulled their advertising from us because of stories we printed or opinion pieces we ran. Some have never returned; others came back eventually. I did get one veiled threat one time from an advertiser concerning something we were going to run, but I came out and bluntly challenged the person about where we stood.

That didn't make us heroes in any way. We have an obligation to our readers. They have a trust in us.

A good newspaper reports all kinds of stories, reveals and allows various opinions to be printed on the opinion page, and generally tries to serve the whole community. It has an obligation to be as true to its readers as it can be, while still serving as a fair messenger for its advertisers. Other than to voice liability concerns, management of papers should allow editors and reporters to do their job.

Every newspaper creates what we call in the business "advertorial" pieces. These are pieces that promote business; we even have entire specials based on that. This is part of the business world we live in.

But the down-to-earth basis of any newspaper should be honest and truthful reporting of news events in a community, not the promotion of the business interests of the ownership.

Sometimes it is hard for the reader to sort this all out. But I have found over my years working in newspapers and magazines that most people do get it. They realize what is happening and either avoid those kinds of publications or take what those newspapers print with many grains of salt.

Thanks to our loyal readers and advertisers. We will continue to print this newspaper in as independent a way as we can.

And we are always open to your concerns and ideas.

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