Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training
 
 

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We received a letter to the editor criticizing the high prices and poor service at a local food chain. The letter urges local action. Would you publish?

It’s a slippery slope to open your letters column to criticism of businesses. A couple of points on enforcing such a policy:

No. 1, the policy is a double-edged sword. If you reject the critical letters, you’ll be hard-pressed to publish the complimentary letters.

No, 2, make the distinction between public and private issues. We had a vigorous debate in our community where a store was expanding and changing its franchise. The expansion included closing a road which provided a shortcut from our downtown to the bridge that crossed the river into another state. The shortcut was routinely used by emergency vehicles. The safety issue was raised at public hearings, and we allowed the debate in the letters column. However, we rejected letters critical of the change in store franchise that meant customers would now have to bag their own groceries.

As with all policies, there are exceptions. A motorist passed through town on a Sunday evening. His car broke down, and most service stations, etc., were closed. He recounted the many good Samaritans – and identified specific businesses – who helped him get on his way that evening. It was truly a “spontaneous” thank-you and was more a commentary on the goodwill of the entire community vs. specific businesses.

Newspapers should regularly address and explain their news operations and policies to readers. Why newspapers accept or reject letters commenting on private businesses is excellent fodder for such a column.

How can nondaily newspapers compete with daily media and their instantaneous online coverage of the very election campaign issues that we are following but can't print until a week after the event?

The Web provides weekly newspapers the same capability of instantaneous online coverage – and not only during election season. The Web ought to be at the forefront of all newspapers in terms of disseminating news. Following that, customize the news to your readers.

Specific to elections, you can tailor your stories to the local issues most important to your readers. Identify these issues at the beginning of election season and use them as a barometer of your coverage. Another opportunity to tailor your coverage – and engage your readers - is to enlist a local panel of citizens at the beginning of the election season. These individuals can offer their perspectives on the candidates and the issues at regular intervals. If candidates have a major press conference that generates widespread attention, the local panelists can post their comments on the Web, thus making your coverage both timely and relevant to your audiences.

What are some ways to inject new voices and new ideas on our editorial page?

One avenue is to spotlight an issue each month by inviting two individuals to write a point/counterpoint on the topic. Some issues, such as school levy referendums, are natural for opposing editorial perspectives. Other issues that are likely covered in the news pages are candidates for points/counterpoints as well – for example, proposals for a highway bypass or riverfront development, incentives for economic development, revisions to rental housing codes.

This is also an opportunity for newspapers to supplement limited newsroom resources and give exposure to issues that may not receive regular news coverage. 

On occasion, we reject letters to the editor due to libel considerations. Individuals inevitably criticize our decision on the argument that the newspaper is silencing their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. How do you respond?

The criticism that a newspaper is shortchanging someone's constitutional right is a typical reaction. The topic of libel is a worthy one for editors to address periodically in a column to readers. No. 1, see if the letter still can be used after some editing or rewriting. Sometimes a word, phrase or section can be eliminated or recrafted. The libel comment is removed, and the message is left intact. This might be done through some relatively simple editing, or you might relay your concerns to the individuals and have them rewrite the sections. In either case, the writer should be made aware of why the letter is unacceptable in its current form. In some instances, the letter — even with editing - may not be salvageable, or the writers may refuse to change anything. In that event, the letter must be rejected. Writers typically will tell editors that they are willing to accept the risk of legal repercussions. They must understand, however, that the liability extends beyond the writer. By virtue of publishing the letter, any number of individuals — the opinion page editor, editor, publisher and owner — can be sued. The newspaper itself can be the target of a lawsuit.

Our newspaper struggles to get letters to the editor. Do you have suggestions to generate letters?

Foremost, make sure your opinion page is a forum of ideas that will prompt reader interaction. The more vibrant the exchange of ideas, the more likely readers will speak out. Local editorials on local issues are a requisite to challenge people to think about issues occurring within their communities. In addition, a variety of guest commentaries typically crosses all editors' desks. It might be from a state agricultural or business association, or an institute that focuses on rural or urban affairs, or an environmental organization. Identify a special interest, and either the organization regularly distributes guest commentaries or it has information ready to share. In that regard, the best encouragement for letters might be guest commentaries from community residents. Even individuals who are outspoken in a community might be hesitant to put words in writing for publication in their local newspapers. Individuals often hesitate — wondering whether they are articulate enough, or whether they have the "thick skin" to accept reader feedback. Bottom line, if readers see their friends and neighbors writing about a variety of ideas, they are more likely to join the debate themselves.

The Web is an excellent avenue to post breaking news stories and drive readers to our newspaper. Are there ways to create a connection between our Web site and our print edition when it comes to the editorial page?

Blogs, by newspaper staff as well as community residents, are standard fare at many newspapers. One way to create a connection is to regularly publish excerpts from the blogs in the print edition. Promote it as the "best of the blogs." In the end, newspapers will benefit most if readers view the print edition and the Web site as complementary packages.

You advocate including someone from the advertising department on a newspaper's editorial board. How can those individuals be objective? Won't they simply be looking out for the newspaper's financial interests — as opposed to the community's best interests — when framing the newspaper's editorial positions?

The goal of any editorial board is to seek a broad spectrum of opinions. There is no set formula for editorial board representatives, but the process ideally should solicit opinions from beyond solely the news department. Some newspapers include representatives from the community at-large.

The best editorial boards — if they are to remain dynamic — should include rotating and permanent members. Individuals assigned on a rotating basis might include someone from the newspaper's production and advertising departments as well as the community members. The editor and publisher fall in the category of permanent members at any newspaper. In that regard, no one is more interested in a newspaper's financial health — and a community's well-being — than the publisher.

A bank forecloses on a house, and a court order is issued to evict the family. Police surround a house for nearly two hours waiting for the family to leave their home. All ends peacefully. It is the last of 35 eviction orders served that day. What do you report?

The newspaper has an obligation to report the circumstances of this specific eviction; the standoff is news in the neighborhood. Beyond that, however, is the "second-day story" that newspapers often ignore. This is an example of a sensitive — and important — story that demands follow-up.

The real news is that this was the 35th eviction served in a single day. That fact raises all sorts of questions and potential stories. Among them: Did these evicted families share a common profile? Where did they spend the next night, week, month? Are there community resources to assist them — before they ever reach this point and after their eviction? Coverage of sensitive stories demands attention on two fronts: fair and consistent coverage of the event itself, and examination of follow-up stories that offer greater understanding to the original event.

Our city officials fired our fire chief. The assistant chief, who has been named acting chief, has told me that he will seek the position. He has been assistant for about five years and done a good job. My dilemma is that I've been told the man is a convicted felon, having served time in prison for killing another man. We had heard for years that he was a felon but never was there a reason to investigate since he was not in an official capacity on the fire department - until recently. Our former mayor had hired him when he completed his sentence. It was the mayor's act of kindness to help someone who had paid his debt to society. This guy couldn't be nicer.

As difficult as it may be on the assistant fire chief, you owe it to your readers to research/confirm the assistant's background, and give him an opportunity to respond. No. 1, his felony record might disqualify him from even being considered for the position. Hindsight is always 20/20, but researching his background and doing this story would have been appropriate even in his current capacity as assistant fire chief. No. 2, if you've heard the word for years that he was a felon, it's likely that the word is "out on the street." You are doing him a service by reporting the story, though he may not immediately see the value. If the felony precludes him from consideration for fire chief - or results in his dismissal as assistant chief - that's the law. If the felony does not legally prevent him from service as chief or assistant chief, his story appears to be one of someone who indeed has paid his debt to society and performed well on the job - thanks to your mayor's act of kindness.

Lastly, keep a log of the decisions made and steps taken in pursuing this story. At the end, you can write an excellent column explaining the process and importance of tackling and reporting this story. Readers count on your newspaper as being a "living history" of what occurs in your community. This story certainly falls within that realm.

Another election season is upon us, and it seems we have a repeat of similar candidates campaigning on similar themes. Complicating our coverage, we have few distinctions among candidates. Everyone basically runs under the same partisan label or, at minimum, espouses similar philosophies.

Consistency is important in election coverage, especially making certain that candidates are quizzed on the same issues. Beyond that, however, a couple of avenues offer an opportunity to vary the profiles and give readers additional insight on candidates.

Most newsrooms, no matter their size, are strapped for resources during election season. So why not spread coverage among all reporters, especially those who do not typically cover politics, and take advantage of individual interviewing and writing styles. Imagine the resulting personality profiles detailing candidate backgrounds and what makes them tick. With all profiles, there is an opportunity to give readers a personal glimpse of candidates by including a sidebar that includes such items as hobbies and favorite books.

Even candidates who espouse similar liberal or conservative philosophies can be distinguished by varying shades of liberal or conservative stances. There can be just as great a difference on issues between a liberal and conservative Democrat as there is between a Democrat and a Republican. Another way to broaden an interview is to address issues beyond the immediate election. For example, quiz candidates about the impact of demographic changes. How do their perspectives affect public policy that they would advance.

Do we sometimes overthink how to report sensitive stories?

Editors and reporters often agonize over decisions when — evaluated in the calm of your office and absent deadline pressure — are quite easily made. Common-sense and community tolerance are a couple of solid guiding principles. Be careful, however, to not let human nature cloud decisions. It's not surprising that many people cringe when reading stories involving sensitive circumstances. At the same time, much good can come from reporting sensitive news. Capturing the emotions at a fatal accident scene might be a springboard for launching a public safety campaign to address a particularly dangerous intersection. Reporting a string of athlete suspensions for drug and alcohol abuse might draw attention to a communitywide problem and prompt action.

One excellent way to evaluate sensitive stories is to insert yourself or a family member as the subject. How would you react? Your response hopefully is not that you would withhold the report. Rather, you will look at the story with greater scrutiny. In the end, fairness and consistency should be at the foundation of all reporting, especially when dealing with sensitive stories.

We're seeing more and more suspensions of high school athletes and have decided to start reporting them. When is a good time to implement this policy?

The fall sports season, in conjunction with the kickoff of another school year, is an excellent time to announce and implement a new policy. And the summer gives you ample opportunity to discuss and determine the parameters of your policy. Remember, enacting the policy is the second of three steps and often the easiest part. Once guidelines are in place, reporters have a template to follow.

Step 1 is developing the policy and is similar to writing a story. The more thorough the research — the more people you talk to — the stronger the resulting policy. Talk with as many individuals as possible. Your newspaper family in all departments represents a good cross-section of your community. It's equally important to visit with community members — a sampling from school officials to sports booster clubs to athletes themselves to rank-and-file fans. Not everyone will tell you what you want to hear, or even agree with your final decision, but you'll earn their respect for seeking their opinions. Step 3 is explaining the policy to readers. A column and/or editorial from the editor or publisher is an excellent avenue to do so.

A girl quits the basketball team because she is pregnant. How do you report the story?

Players voluntarily quitting a team due to personal circumstances is different than reporting players' suspensions due to sanctions imposed for violation of school district or state high school league rules. If nobody is willing to talk about the girl's circumstances — even though the news is common knowledge throughout the community — the newspaper is hard-pressed to report anything.

At the same time, don't automatically reject the idea of talking to the girl directly. Newspapers, if they take responsible and sensitive approaches, often will find the subjects of "tough and challenging" circumstances willing to share their stories. In this regard, the first contact might not be with the girl herself, but with someone else close to her. Editors and reporters always should think beyond the "spot" news accounts. In this case, the girl might be willing to let the newspaper "follow her story" through the child's birth. It could make an outstanding package in words and photos as the girl, as well as others close to her, speak to the decisions she faced and the accompanying emotions. On a broader scale, the girl's exit from the team also could be a springboard for a story or series of stories addressing teen-age and single-parent pregnancies.

We live in a town of 3,000 people. How do you endorse candidates for local offices, especially if one of the candidates — who you choose not to endorse — is one of your newspaper's major advertisers?

The strongest editorials — especially those offering candidate endorsements — stick to the issues and not personalities. Newspapers should identify the issues that are important to specific elective offices. For example, on local races, newspapers might stand four-square behind public tax incentives for downtown development, or stricter zoning to prevent large residential developments in rural areas, or increased funding via a local referendum for smaller school class sizes.

Once the issues are identified, rate the candidates on the basis of where they stand on the issues. A certain amount of subjectivity inevitably plays a role in endorsements, but clear criteria of the issues the newspaper deems important and the stances of the candidates provide an objective foundation — or at least a starting point - for why the newspaper chose one candidate over another.

If newspapers report suicides, don't they face legal action from families on the basis of invasion of privacy?

The cause of a death — i.e. suicide, drowning, heart attack — is classified as public information under most, if not all, state laws. Responsible reporting of suicides includes, among other things, prompt reporting. Newspapers should be sensitive to grieving families and report the suicide in a timely fashion — namely, before funerals. Editors and reporters should meet with the proper authorities who release this information and ensure procedures are in place to get the cause of death in a timely manner.

A newspaper decides to publish a photo of a fatal accident scene? Do you alert the family ahead of time?

Newspapers obviously have no legal obligation to alert families. But a phone call from an editor to make someone aware of the publication of a sensitive photo or story can be worthwhile and beneficial. It shows that newspapers are sensitive to the impact of certain photos and stories. The contact also might result in additional information for the story, or even lead to a follow-up story.

Editors should be clear to individuals that the phone call is a courtesy call, and that the newspaper is not seeking "permission" or "approval" for publication of the material. There's always a certain risk with these calls, if an editor becomes engaged in an argument. What was intended as an attempt to show sensitivity to a subject might backfire and wind up making individuals even more upset than they otherwise might have been.

We're relatively new to the newspaper business. What gives us the right - how do we have the confidence — to editorialize on local subjects, especially with respect to endorsing candidates for elective office?

Editors and reporters should not underestimate their roles or their special perspectives within their communities. Newspapers, as clearinghouses of information and ideas, should have an inside and behind-the-scenes look at issues and people. Editorials are an opportunity to put this knowledge to use - to make all readers aware of certain information that should be considered in community decision-making — whether it's a county board vote to site a landfill or information that's relevant to electing a city council member.

Above all, editorials should be presented to readers as simply one opinion. Editorials clearly are written with the premise that they are based on a set of facts and that the recommended actions are taken seriously by the audiences to which the editorials are directed. But editors should not act like God and posture their editorials as the "only and right" opinion on an issue.


Pumarlo.com • Jim Pumarlo • Community Newsroom Success Strategies • 1327 W. Sixth St. • Red Wing, MN • 55066 • (651) 380-4295