In the early 1990s, at my second job out of college, at a newspaper in central Alabama, I made the mistake of writing a column about church league basketball.
I had the best of intentions. I was the sports editor of a semiweekly paper in a small city that was becoming a bedroom community for the state capital and the thriving military base between the two cities. My brand, to the extent a 23-year-old, naive, fish-out-of-water reporter/editor/columnist could have a brand, was to not take sports too seriously, but to view it as a metaphor for life.
One week, I had a handful of people tell me that the best team in the local YMCA Church Basketball League, representing the second biggest church in about the 10th biggest city in the state, was acting reprehensibly in their games. They were not only winning, but showboating, running up scores and rubbing it in, then disingenuously telling their upset opponents not to get angry because, “it’s church league, baby.”
I went to watch a game to confirm the behavior and then I wrote a column that called out the behavior.
I could not have been more unprepared for the result. Although I did not mention the church or any of the players by name, I think I heard from every player on that team, as well as the church’s assistant pastor, who hosted me at his office. I also had way too many pow wows with my publisher.
Although I had gotten some threats at Auburn for being a sports editor who was not rah rah enough about the football team, I had never experienced anything like the church league basketball controversy. People read my words back to me with fury in their voices. They accused me of questioning their religion or their faith in their religion. There was a second round of controversy about how I had only watched one game. When I gave them feedback from two other games, a few of the players started outing and questioning my sources. When the YMCA’s league coordinator later introduced me to his wife, she greeted me by saying, “so, you are the one who is trying to get my husband fired.” I am pretty sure those were the only words she ever spoke to me.
As a yankee (not really, but I was a Marylander to an Alabamian) kid of Jewish descent who had already gotten a threat from the chief of police to “watch myself” because I was an Auburn grad in an Alabama town and had written a few columns taunting the Tide, I had a lot of strikes against me anyway. Plus, I was an outsider, writing for the newspaper, in a town where it still mattered whose family had once owned what land. I legitimately had concerns about my safety.
For not the first or last time during my three and a half years there, I worried I might wake to find a burning cross in the yard.
I learned a lot of lessons about the power of my words that week.
Don’t get me wrong, I was correct about what I wrote, but as my publisher liked to ask me after every ensuing column controversy, “Did we need to say it? Did saying it do more harm than good?”
It’s funny, because when I was in my 20s, I thought it was neat that I would leave behind dozens of columns with my thoughts and pieces of myself in them. Now
I look back at the columns I wrote in my teens and 20s and I am often aghast. I want to renounce half of what I wrote, half of what I thought I believed.
Those were lessons I took into my second stint in newspapers, for the past decade with the pension fund. When, unexpectedly, eight years ago, I was thrown into being the Crier editor, I suddenly had to write editorials, the so called “view of the paper” missives that have both a grand and not-so-glorious history in journalism.
One editorial I wrote about a great soccer game was good enough a coach later told me she read it to her team.
However, typically, the middle managers at the pension fund objected to my editorials that were too national in scope. Arguments ensued. Chains of command were called into question. More than one editorial was pulled. Orders to write local-only editorials were given and then broken, by both sides, it would turn out, as the pension fund later ordered all of its papers to run some national editorials in 2016.
I should explain that I do not normally read editorial pages in other papers.
Coming of age in Alabama, I know too well how often they have been used for justifying evil rather than advocating for good. There are papers that I think have good to great reporting staffs – the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, to name two – but just dreadful editorial pages, to the point where I start questioning their missions and sometimes stop taking their products. When I was more interested in the stock market than I am today, I briefly got into the market patterns charted by Investors Business Daily. Then I read the editorial page and I lost interest. How could I take financial advice from a paper that still thinks there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
Beyond that, to use television terms, I hate the conceit of editorials themselves. One person, perhaps under advisement and consultation of a larger group, writes in the royal we something that represents the “view of the paper,” whatever that means.
To top it off, all of my experience has been at small newspapers. Maybe the larger chains and national newspapers and groups actually practice the “wall of separation” between news and editorial that is jauntily bandied about on cable news shows when they navel gaze about journalistic integrity.
I have yet to work at a small paper where that is actually the case. Reporters and editors who work on stories are often part of the editorial page process.
And sometimes, maybe, they should be. I can remember one or two times when someone at the pension fund editorialized on something I covered as a reporter.
The editorial result showed either I had not answered enough questions with my coverage, or the editorial writer had not read enough of the story.
Still, I hesitate with that maybe. Reporters are supposed to write unbiased articles; columnists and editorial writers write opinions. A lot of people aren’t even sophisticated to know the difference between an article, a column and an editorial. Should we be mixing reporting with the opinion pages in a way that blurs those lines more?
My frustrations with the editorial pages aren’t limited to the editorials. National media columnists have become high priced, low information people, more into their own newsworthiness and fame than in serving any true mission, of their papers or themselves. And don’t get me started on letters and their less educated cousins, anonymous “sound off’ columns.
Who was it that said opinions are like a part of the body on the back side? I feel that way some days. Too many opinions, or even too much of one person’s opinion, and things tend to stink. And yes, I mean mine, too.
From a practical standpoint, editorial pages also take time and resources to maintain. One of the reasons the pension fund switched to several days a week of sound offs was harvesting anonymous comments from Facebook takes a lot less time than writing a cogent editorial. In my literal person hours, writing an editorial or a column takes about the same time as attending and covering a meeting or a baseball game. As the editor, which is more important? Which is more important for our readers?
I also worry about alienating some of our readers, too. Safe to say, I am to the left of the previous editor. I could give some readers whiplash if I start getting up on my liberal soapbox about the world at large. And while I know it is what some people would like, is it the best thing for the paper and our readers? Is it really important that I or we say it, in a local paper dedicated to covering local news? I don’t know the answers, but I will try to weigh that standard whenever I ask the questions.
I am not even sure if writing a lot of opinion pieces is the best thing for me. I am happy living in a bipartisan world. I have my beliefs and opinions, but they don’t preclude me from appreciating other people who have different views. I am a child of divorce, my parents separated when I was four. I like peace and harmony. I don’t want to argue with you. I am tired of being in the middle of people arguing. I have a teenaged son, so I am never far from arguments, anyway.
I always say, there are only 60,000 people in Otsego County; we need each other. Coaching a team is a good metaphor. You won’t have a very good team if you start excluding people based on their political views. Otsego County and our region is our team. It is actually nice to be among one of the few groups of people in the country who do not live a bubble these days.
Maybe it only works because of the mostly unspoken upstate way of life. Someone once explained to me that upstate New York has a “let’s not talk about it” philosophy. Social media has made
it hard to keep to it, and cable news probably hasn’t helped, either, but I am good without having to share all of my views with friends and family.
The opposite is true, too! After nearly 10 years in Alabama, it is always a blessing when a meal does not end with someone trying to convert me to something, be it a political view or a
And, to top it all off, I run a bipartisan nonprofit film commission office. We have donors from both political parties. I have not asked, but I think we have board members of a wide variety of political views.
I know people think of “Hollywood” as liberal, but that isn’t always true. If Tim Allen or James Woods or Kelsey Grammer wants to make a movie in Otsego County, I will take their
calls and show them around and work hard to bring their business and their money here, just the same as I would for Amy Schumer or Mark Ruffalo or Leonardo DiCaprio. If you have
studied how money gets re-spent, you will know it bounces around a community several times without checking voter registrations. Bringing that money here is a bipartisan goal.
All of which is to say, of all my new tasks here, maintaining an editorial page is one of the least of my priorities, yet one of the largest of my concerns. We had our first editorial board meeting last week — former The Freeman’s Journal publishers Michael Moffat and Lin Vincent joined new Publisher Tara Barnwell and myself — but it was more a get to know you meeting than a true editorial board meeting. In the weeks to come, we will redefine the media group in many ways, but editorially will certainly be one of them.
I am curious what our readers think and what they want from the papers. If you have opinions, let us know.