Monday, May 20, 2013

HOW A NEWSPAPER WORKS (OR SHOULD)



By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

A local (Rockland County, N.Y.) newspaper comment site brought a complaint from one concerned reader of its editorial page that an opinion questioning iffy funding for a controversial semi-pro ballpark was hypocritical since the paper had sponsored a “Name that Game” contest. Ah, a time to instruct here, just as I once learned.

I was with a newspaper -- The Journal-News -- for a long time, 42 years, and I served a lengthy stint as the edit page editor, but even before I was in that fortunate job, I was a strong reader of editorials in the Daily News out of New York City. 

I recall reading these edits as a 10th grader in Spring Valley High School, on lunch break at my nearby grandparents’ house. Occasionally, I would be struck by a fervent piece that seemed out of line with the news coverage. How could the paper shout in one voice and then do something contrary with its hands? 

I am not sure how I learned this  -- perhaps it was in the journalism activity class that we could take, or maybe in general reading, but I did come to understand that the editorials are the official opinion of the newspaper, and that the news-gathering side might be asked by editorialists for fact but that the editorial voice, in a most sacrosanct way, must be independent of the city desk, that it must be considered opinion, not driven by news gathering and certainly not geared to promoting the paper.

Now, this pure approach has not always been followed. Muckraker, yellow journalism has always existed, and opinion pages are also driven by the paper’s philosophy, even the publisher’s bent. So there can be Republican or Democratic -leaning papers, for example.

Yet, basically speaking, I can say that as editor of an opinion page for 20 years, having also worked on it for an additional 9, my predecessors and I tried to ignore the paper’s news-bent, even its marketing. 

So, when the commenter recently questioned how a local paper could rail against ballpark funding when its marketing department ran a “Name that Game” contest, I wanted to look the fellow in the eye and tell him what’s what.
Of course, you can't do that online.

Newspapers make many mistakes daily, and they can be high and mighty, even hypocritical. But day in and day out in this daily birth there are standards that we newspaper people hold dear, and most of us try to keep to them, mistakes or not.

Churchill once said that a democracy is imperfect, but it is the best we have. Newspapers, too, are troublesome, but if we did not have them, think how much more secretive government would be, how much deeper special interests would burrow into our lives without a light shining on their ways?

The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

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