Striking a balance with newspapers

David Bordewyk

One of my favorite newspaper mottos is “the only newspaper in the world that cares about (insert community name).” Over the years, I have seen various newspapers print it on their front-page nameplate. In many respects, the motto captures what a good newspaper is all about – publishing news and information about the community that informs and engages its citizens.
Sometimes that job is far from easy. Especially for newspapers intent on taking their journalistic responsibilities seriously.
Last week, you may have seen the news that spread like a prairie fire about the weekly newspaper in Marion, Kansas, that was the subject of search warrant by local police. The police seized the newspaper’s computers, cell phones and documents. They also took computers from the editor’s home. All stemming from a convoluted small-town drama involving a businesswoman who doesn’t like the newspaper. Plus, police accusations that a newspaper reporter broke the law.
By week’s end, police had rescinded the search warrant and returned seized equipment to the newspaper. It appeared the story was winding down, but not before nationwide outrage came from those who advocate for the First Amendment and a free press – including myself —about how this incident represented an attack on journalism and a threat to democracy itself.
Now, we are learning more about the story.
On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that the local police chief sought the search warrant because he believed a Marion County Record reporter may have broken the law by impersonating someone else to obtain information from an online state government database. The newspaper’s editor and lawyer said no law was violated and that the reporter accessed the government record only for research purposes allowed under the law. In short, journalism is not a crime.
On Sunday, The New York Times published a broader story about tension between some Marion residents and the Marion County Record because of what they perceive to be unnecessary and overly aggressive news coverage by the hometown newspaper. A quote from the Times story: “The role should of course be positive about everything that is going on in Marion, and not stir things up and look at the negative side of things,” said Mitch Carlson, who co-owns the local grocery store.”
Marion County Record editor Eric Meyer responded that he believes the newspaper’s watchdog reporting ultimately makes the community better. As the Times reported, not everyone in Marion agrees with Meyer.
Besides First Amendment and free press debates, the Kansas story raises another important question. How does a community newspaper strike a proper balance in the way it covers the community and what it publishes on the printed pages and online? What is the happy medium?
There is a distinction between civic boosterism and watchdog reporting, and there is a place for both in a good community newspaper. Reporting aggressively about local government and asking tough questions of those in authority do not disqualify a newspaper from also amplifying hometown civic pride and running stories and photos that end up on refrigerator doors and in family scrapbooks.
Journalism school teaches you how to gather and report news accurately and fairly. Knowing how to cover the difficult stories that may irritate your subscribers and fellow residents is no easy task. Especially when those mad at you are your neighbors and friends you see on the street every day.
The story out of Kansas may not be over. Regardless, it is a good lesson about the role newspapers play in their communities and why it should never be taken for granted by those who run them and by those who read them.
There is no exact science or playbook to follow when putting together a good, solid newspaper that keeps a community informed. It’s more of an artform than anything. It comes with having a good ear to the ground and a keen sense of the community’s pulse. Again, no easy task.
An adage says you are not doing your job as an editor if something you wrote doesn’t make someone mad. The same can be said about writing a story that makes someone smile.
There is room for both in the newspaper.
David Bordewyk is executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, Brookings, S.D.

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