June 25, 2024

Taking The Risk Of Leadership

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There’s a story about the late publisher of The Washington Post, Kathryn Graham, and the financial consequences of the newspaper’s coverage of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate break-in investigation.

Graham’s chief financial officer approached her after the first stories had been published and told her the newspaper had lost $7 million because of its coverage. While a substantial sum, even for a publication as large as The Post, Graham didn’t back down. In fact, she is reported to have said, “Well, it’s a good thing we can afford it.”

Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continued their investigation into the burglary of the Democratic Party’s Committee offices in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. In the end, their reporting on the Nixon Administration’s cover-up of its involvement in the burglary led to Nixon’s resignation.

What the nation couldn’t afford was a president willing to break the law to defeat his opponent.

When Martin Baron was the editor of the Boston Globe, his newspaper pursued stories shining a light on the sexual abuse of kids by Catholic priests and its cover-up. It was a series of stories for which it suffered financial consequences. It could afford it – at the time.

How would each of these stories play out today by a press increasingly owned by Wall Street hedge funds focused on profits and surviving independent newspapers walking a financial tightrope?

In 2022, the largest newspaper chain in America, Gannett Co., the owner of more than 250 dailies at the time, substantially downsized its editorial pages and days of publication. It pulled its editorial cartoons and opinion columns. It reduced the number of letters it published. They said all these features of their editorial pages were “alienating” readers.

We already feel an intense dread of writing about the coming elections and the issues that will shape our nation’s future because of the potential consequences.

We know America is becoming increasingly polarized, with a more significant percentage now saying violence against those who don’t think like them is justified. We have a former president who has promoted violence against the press and against his critics. It has seeped deeply into our culture.

America has lost more than 2,900 newspapers due to the financial impact of the internet, the declining rural population, the spread chain of stores replacing local owners, and Amazon’s increasing share of our rural shopping dollars. It is losing an average of 2.5 newspapers per week. Nearly 50,000 journalists have been lost over the past two decades. 

Those of us who remain are more fragile today – more susceptible to financial punishment.

There was a time when a publisher or editor could take a reasoned position with those who disagreed criticizing the writer. They might have written a letter offering their thoughts. But they continued to subscribe. They continued to buy advertising. They saw the value of the newspaper’s coverage of their community as essential to its knowledge of local affairs, news about the people of their community, and holding their local officials accountable.

That’s not the case today. Now, we are quickly, financially punished. Subscriptions are canceled. Customers tell advertisers to stop buying ads in the newspaper, or they will lose their business.

Sometimes, a public official or body needs to be taken to task for bad behavior, poor decisions, or inaction that hurts a community. But the public notice advertising we get has become an increasingly important part of our revenue. The ads the local units of government place on snow removal parking rules, energy-saving measures, schedules for services, and other public information are essential. 

If you just bought a newspaper, and have substantial monthly payments to a lender, along with printing, postal and staff payments, and a family to support, you will naturally be cautious and anxious. Courage is admirable, but so is keeping the doors open.

“The best op-ed pages operate almost like a town square, allowing readers to discuss and debate issues important both to their communities and beyond,” writers for The Conversation say. Today, discussion and debate have been sidelined by shouting and threats.

“If a newspaper has brains, it will show up on the editorial page. If a newspaper has a heart, it will show up on the editorial page. If a newspaper has courage, it will be most evident on the editorial page,” Dolph Tillotson, chairman of Houston-based Southern Newspapers Inc., writes in a piece about the critical role a newspaper’s editorial page.

“All those things — brains, heart, and courage — are ephemeral, impossible to measure and impossible to teach in a journalism class. Yet those things are the building blocks on which any news organization builds its relationship with its community, its audience.” And, he adds, “Any lasting human relationship requires honesty.”

We recognize there have been benefits to our editorial and column writing because of today’s deep social and political divisions and the financial insecurity we feel. We’ve become more thoughtful, bringing people along and creating common ground as we write. Our editorial pages are not meant to tell people how to think, but to give them a different perspective.

Respect for our readers is essential. But even when we write with respect, today’s absolute, inflexible divisions lead to punishment. At times, we feel our voice has been stolen. 

Newspapers are responsible for “taking the risk of leadership,” Tillotson says. It’s such an inspiring thought for a community newspaper.

Can we afford the price of honesty? Can we afford to challenge our readers to think more deeply about the consequences of their actions or inaction? Can we take a risk?

A strong press is fundamental to an informed electorate.  Without us, how will you know the candidates running for office this fall? How many will not know the issues that might be on the ballot?

 Our weakened state today endangers our more than 250-year experiment with representative democracy. Community newspapers are a public good. We keep democracy alive. Our local, state, and federal leaders must support legislation immediately that ensures their future.

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