Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Too many newspapers don't want to upset anybody

One sad fact about community journalism in the United States is that many, if not most, of the weekly and small daily newspapers don't publish editorials, or even have editorial pages. And another sad fact is that the first fact isn't often written about. Tom Larimer, right, the executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, broke the silence recently with a column that got our attention and admiration.

Larimer began by noting Minnesotans' negative reaction to the Swift County Monitor-News's endorsement of same-sex marriage, and Publisher Reed Anfinson's column about it, which noted, "Many community newspapers in America no longer carry editorial pages because of the fear of losing subscribers or advertisers." (For that column, see Page 4 of the December issue of Pub Aux, published by the National Newspaper Association, which Anfinson headed in 2011-12.)

The lack of edit pages is also about losing friends, in a segment of the business where personal comfort often conflicts with professional responsibility. Larimer knows that, and states the reasons for lack of leadership more broadly: "In an effort to avoid such occasional conflict with readers, a lot of newspapers have simply discontinued their editorial pages. . . . Many no longer endorse political candidates, feeling perhaps like this is just going out of the way to alienate some readers. There’s no arguing that this is the safe way not to offend anyone, and certainly not to create the sort of stir as they experienced at the Monitor-News. But is this truly what readers expect of us?"

Noting a controversial column that ran in one of the papers he edited, Larimer recalled, "Everyone in the community who read the newspaper was aware of this column, discussed it often, ranted, sometimes called the local editor to complain, and then read it again the next week. The important thing here was that they were reading, and they were thinking about the subject matter. This was an important lesson for a young editor of a country weekly newspaper. Not everyone is always going to agree with everything you may opine in the columns of your newspaper. But they will read it and they will discuss it, and they lose no respect for you for having expressed your thoughts on the matter."

Larimer concluded, "When we hear comments about nobody reading the newspaper anymore, consider that perhaps that’s because there’s nothing, or certainly nothing of substance, to read." For the full, 1,000-word column, in a PDF of the Dec. 27 Arkansas Publisher Weeklyclick here.

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