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One month ago, I asked readers to give their opinion of The Leader – what you like and dislike about your community newspaper. We received tremendous feedback and, interestingly, a number of our letters and emails included a request to share what other people had to say.
There were five over-arching themes that we need to improve.
First, we must do a better job of covering our local businesses. We will tell their stories more often.
Next, it’s apparent that you all like to eat, and you’d appreciate it if we included more local food information (on top of the wildly popular LeaderEater).
You’d like us to publish more weddings and engagements. That means we need to improve our marketing to you because we really do want to publish them, and all we need is for you to send them to us.
Fourth, you love our coupons and you’d like us to have even more of them. That means our sales people need to take more time to explain the value of those coupons, and we need to encourage more advertisers to use that space.
Last, you’d like to read more history about our area. I’ve always viewed a newspaper as the keeper of history more than the reporter of history. The bulk of our reporting needs to be focused on the here and now, but there is a balance of talking about the past, and we’ll work to bring some of that balance back.
That’s probably the best way to summarize the majority of your letters. There were two, however, that deserve the most attention. Two very kind writers suggested that The Leader become more diverse in its coverage. One asked that we cover the African-American community better. The other asked that we begin including more gay coverage in the newspaper. Neither wrote with an angry tone, and neither suggested that we become bastions for the cause. Both, fairly, asked that we give more credence to differing races and creeds.
I’d like to publicly answer those letters, because my assumption is there are many people who would agree. And as writers often do, I’d like to answer those suggestions with a story.
The most formative years of my journalism career were during my time as the editor of a newspaper in Selma, Ala. For those who slept through history class or don’t remember the horrific images of Bloody Sunday, fire hoses and state troopers blocking the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma was the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Selma is both liberated and imprisoned by its history.
As editor of the Times-Journal, I initially thought striking a delicate balance among readers was impossible. If we had a black person on the front page, we received phone calls from white readers who asked why we always had a black person featured. If we had a white person on the front page, blacks decried our favoritism of whites.
There wasn’t a specific epiphany, but as angry readers continued to pile on the editor, I think I realized there was only one way to cover a community with the diversity of Selma: Be as blind as possible to everything except the story.
Let’s be clear. You cannot be blind to race – anyone who says so is dishonest. You cannot be blind to creed or sexual preference – we are humans. But a newspaper’s job is to tell stories to its readers, and the moment a newspaper loses focus of the story, it loses the respect of its readers.
I’m still a relatively new owner of The Leader. We make changes and (hopefully) improvements to this newspaper every week. As we continue to grow, this is the pledge I can make to readers who care about fair coverage of races, creeds and sexual preferences.
Our job is to tell you about our neighbors as they strive to build livable, safe and prosperous communities. Our job is to report what we see and hear, and we must do it fairly, accurately and timely.
If we cover this community with professionalism, we do not pick and choose the stories we want to tell. We publish the stories you want to tell. We cannot, and must not, limit ourselves to the events and people who are comfortable to us.
If a group of volunteers feeds the homeless, is the story about the volunteers or the act of kindness?
If a brave young man rushes into a burning home and rescues an infant, is the story about the young man or his valor?
If a small organization of men and women march from Selma to Montgomery, demanding that archaic laws be changed, is the story about the leader of that group or the laws that were changed and their impact on the future of our nation?
The people we cover will always be important. But its the stories they tell, the events that happen, and the impact on our community that really matters. And if we don’t cover those things well, then we are not a medium worth reading.