In an effort to show the power of political advertising in newspapers, and potentially secure big paychecks in the future, the Seattle Times has ignited the ire of some of its journalists. In October, Seattle Times employees protested the newspaper for running free political campaign ads — one for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, and another supporting Referendum 74. The journalists said the ads threatened the integrity of those professionals desiring independence from the institutions they cover.
In this case, the checks and balances for journalistic integrity at Seattle’s largest newspaper came from within. For many smaller community newspapers that do not have large staffs or as wide a readership, it’s even more important that ethical standards be set and guarded by their own publishers and editors.
There are any number of reasons why a newspaper might cross the line of journalistic integrity. A paper may be tempted to publish glowing reviews to secure business. Poor judgement may result in the publication of offensive material to stir up controversy. A paper might rely too much on wire services because it does not have enough resources for original material.
While starting out as a journalist in Hawaii at an alternative news weekly struggling to maintain its ad sales, I witnessed my first editors’ challenges with advertising staff. I recall an editor having to defend her less-than-stellar review of a fashion show to a sales executive who argued that if you don’t have anything positive to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.
For community newspapers that fill a void in coverage of neighborhood news or focus on specific cultural perspectives, it’s particularly essential that these papers strive to grant their constituencies a high standard of journalism.
Mike Dillon, the publisher of Queen Anne & Magnolia News, explained that newspapers must first maintain a working relationship with their communities.
“The needs of the community boil down to a need for information, especially concerning land use and development, schools, crime, business, community councils, etc.,” Dillon said. “People matter: those who have done something significant — winning a Little League game, participating in a school play are also significant — or those who might need help. Each community is different, and their issues are different, but those are the basics.”
Dillon pointed to the struggle that smaller newspapers face in expanding coverage while maintaining high standards with limited resources.
“There’s an old saying: ‘Newspapers should reflect the values of their community.’ True, but only to a point,” Dillon said. “Newspapers are not in the business of always telling people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. That’s where the issue of editorial judgment comes in. How do we know if we’re addressing those needs? This is a contact sport. We get feedback. And we intuitively know if we’re touching enough bases. We can’t touch them all all the time. Better can always be done. Each community presents infinite story possibilities, while newspapers have finite resources.”
Rey Fortaleza is the publisher of the Reyfort Media Group, which is bannered by The Philippine Asian News Today, published in Vancouver, British Columbia. Its sister publications are the Philippine Showbiz Today and the Living Today lifestyle magazine.
Fortaleza agreed that a community newspaper must strive to focus on delivering a high standard of media coverage, particularly for minority voices.
“As publisher, I’ve always believed that providing accurate and timely information to the community is the No.-1 priority for community-based media,” Fortaleza said. “In addition to this, community media needs to extol the various achievements of members of the community, given its context as an immigrant-based ethnic community.”
When asked whether it might be the role of newspapers to “police” the quality of other publications, Fortaleza said it falls on individual papers to do it themselves.
“With respect to policing other community-based media outfits, I am confident that each media entity is capable enough to know the bounds and parameters of their work,” Fortaleza said.
Dillon also stressed the importance of a newspaper’s need for self-regulation, not solely relying on community feedback.
“I don’t know if a community raises and maintains the integrity and impact of smaller news operations,” Dillon said. “Those things depend on the standards a newspaper sets for itself. Competition doesn’t always guarantee high standards. There are many small communities served by lone newspaper operations that are excellent, basically because they know they are it, and they have a sense of stewardship toward their communities, which they take seriously.”
Community newspapers have a great opportunity to help educate the public on how and why those high standards should be met. In the end, it becomes everyone’s job to police the quality of our struggling newspaper industry.