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Reflecting on the responsibilities of newspapers — 29 years ago

Charles W. Bailey II, who died in New Jersey at 82 on Tuesday, had been a longtime reporter and then the editor of the Minneapolis Tribune for a decade before becoming editor of the merged Star and Tribune in 1982. He resigned shortly thereafter, however, in protest of a new round of planned job cuts. At a testimonial dinner in Minneapolis on Nov. 5, 1982, he gave a speech in which he talked about the roles and responsibilities of editors and their newspapers. Former Star Tribune reporter and city editor Robert Franklin happened to have kept a copy; here are a few excerpts.

I have had occasion recently to think about the role of the newspaper editor, and how it seems to be changing, and what that may mean for editors and papers and readers.

I think there are some new threats to the independence and public utility of newspaper editors. One of these is the growing tendency to encourage, in fact require, editors to become businessmen — to be part of a “management team,” to concentrate on things that involve business rather than journalistic concerns.

Now I know an editor has to be aware of where the money comes from, and I know it is currently fashionable to talk about “the total newspaper,” but speaking from personal experience I don’t think most editors are especially qualified in matters of business and finance. And even if they were, I don’t think they should spend much of their time and energy on such matters.

They have more important things to do. There will always be plenty of people available to tell a publisher how he can do things more cheaply, more profitably, less controversially. He needs someone to explain, from time to time, why things have to be done more expensively, less profitably, and in ways that create rather than avoid controversy.

Editors love to play this role, of course, but if they weren’t there, publishers would have to invent somebody to play it. And I have come to believe that to the extent that editors pretend they are businessmen they reduce their ability to do the things only they can do.

What are those uniquely editorial responsibilities? Well, a newspaper editor is inescapably a figure in his community. Either by involvement or by abstention, he influences some of the larger events in that community. So he must understand the community; he must share its values; he must know and understand the forces that drive it.

Most of all, he must be sensitive to the concerns and sensibilities and ideals of his community. He has to be for the place his newspaper serves — not crassly but in the best sense of the word: He must believe in it as a place to live and work. He must give a lot of time and a lot of himself to that belief and that place, and he must expect to find his principal reward in that self-investment.

An editor really has three constituencies: the public, his staff, and his publisher. The editor must represent the community — his public constituency — inside the newspaper building as well as outside. He must regularly remind his staff of its responsibility to that community. And once in a great while he must be prepared to remind his publisher of that same responsibility. …

There is a poem by Mao Tse-tung which could have been written specifically to remind the editor of his responsibilities. It is set on a riverbank in Changsha, the city where Mao went to college and first became involved in social struggle. Here is how it concludes:

Remember the old timesthe years of fullness,
When we were students and young,
Blooming wand brilliant
With the young intellectual
s
Emotional argument …
Remember still
How, in the middle of the stream,
We struck the water,
Making waves which stopped
The running boats.

I submit that is a pretty fair description of what a newspaper editor should be doing a good deal of the time, but too often nowadays isn’t. We do forget the old times. We are impatient with the kids on our staffs who are giving us “the young intellectual’s emotional argument.” And too many of us — myself included — have spent too much time on shore in the last few years, and too little time out in midstream, making waves.

At an editors’ meeting a couple of weeks ago I listened to Allen Neuharth, the presiding genius of the Gannett newspapers, explain the operation of the editorial page of Gannett’s new national newspaper. Among other things, he suggested that the paper’s editorial policy should generally be kept in tune with prevailing public opinion. One editor challenged that, and asked him: “Do you really believe that your leadership should reflect your readership?” And he replied instantly: “Sure, if you want circulation.”

Well, that may be commercially useful, and it may work for the kind of Newspaper-From-Nowhere that Mr. Neuharth is publishing. But I submit that it is a lousy rule for a responsible newspaper in a real community. The trouble is that an awful lot of newspapers in real communities seem to be going in that direction. They are standing on the shore instead of wading out to make waves.

* * *

That leads to the other theme I thought I would mention. It is also something that has been on my mind recently, for obvious reasons. I have thought a lot, during this long and lovely and bittersweet autumn, about the role of newspapers in their communities.

What newspapers are obligated to provide for their communities is the context for decisions — the menu of accurate and complete and relevant information on which enlightened self-government depends.  It is fashionable these days to talk about lifestyle reporting and special sections and “soft’ news, and of course there is a place for all of that in today’s newspapers. But the justification for newspapers — and for the special privilege granted to them by the authors of the Bill of Rights — is that they print the news.

The news that matters most to people is the news that affects them the most directly. That of course, is the local news. Local coverage is the key, and that takes people, lots of them, and money, lots of it. We skimp on that kind of coverage at our peril — and to the community’s detriment.

Kenneth MacDonald, who was editor of the Des Moines Register for many years and who I believe was the best of the many fine editors for whom I have worked, recently put it this way:

“Good local reporting costs money and flourishes only in a newsroom with a climate of editorial vigor and independence, as well as a tradition of seeking significant news no matter whom it may displease. Often the better the local reporting, the more criticism it will attract; significant news is controversial. The news which attracts the strongest criticism is the coverage which probes beyond the official records. …

“Reporting in these areas won’t please everyone. Whether it survives criticism depends on how stubbornly and perceptively the owner and the editor together resist the pressures of special interests which are constantly directed against them, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly.”

Why does this matter to the community? Here is MacDonald again: “A city is to a considerable extent what it thinks it is. What it thinks it is depends on how much it knows about itself.” It is our responsibility, those of us who have been given temporary employment as gatekeepers of information, to make sure that the place we live in can find out what it needs to know about itself.

This is a special place. We don’t have to be maudlin or self-serving about it … . Certainly it is indisputable that Minnesota’s politics are special, as the familiar roll call of distinguished native sons from Stassen through Humphrey and McCarthy to Mondale demonstrates. I submit that it is equally true that there is routinely more public happiness in the public process hereabouts than in any other place you can think of.

All that says to me that because this state is a special place there is a special obligation on newspapers — all of the newspapers in this state — to do their job very well. Minnesota deserves the very best newspapers we can produce. We in turn benefit, as journalists, from practicing our craft in a place where excellence is appreciated. There is a synergism in the relationship between good newspapers and enlightened public policy, and we must uphold our end of the bargain even if it constrains our profit margins.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 01/05/2012 - 12:57 pm.

    This wonderful summary of an editor’s role — from a great editor — reads like an indictment of today’s newsroom “managers,” with their MBA’s, their aversion to controversy and criticism, and their severely limited vision of the purpose of journalism.
    If you are interested in more on Chuck Bailey, please see my reflections on the man at http://www.nickcolemanmn.com

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/05/2012 - 09:54 pm.

    News has become monetized! Newsetized or stribified or stupitated!

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