On standing your ground

Posted on September 13, 2010 in Letter From The Editor
By Dan MacLeod

I believe in a few things pretty strongly: Bill Murray, the First Amendment, the rule that men should never wear sandals, and the basic tenants of Keynesian economics, for instance.

But chief among my beliefs — the one I hold true above all others, is this:

A newspaper should have balls.

Allow me to back up. Last Fourth of July, I developed a new respect for the Portland Press Herald. The newspaper was part of a group of area businesses that stepped in to pay for the fireworks on the Eastern Prom after the city announced they would have to cut the yearly display due to budget constraints. Sitting on the Prom, surrounded by thousands of other people staring at huge explosions in the sky, (that ultimately set fire to the platform from whence they were launched, as luck would have it) I was struck by how cool it was that a newspaper could do this for its community. Sure, it was a relatively small gesture. And it could be construed as merely an attempt to curry favor from a dwindling readership. But the fact that a daily paper of record could have a tangible impact on their readers — beyond providing news — sort of impressed me.

Then, on Sept. 12, the Press Herald ran a front page apology to their readers for the previous day’s story about area Muslims celebrating the last day of Ramadan. The apology, written by Editor and Publisher Richard Connor, centered on the fact the Press Herald did not include a story about the day’s 9/11-related events. They were apologizing for what some readers saw as a lack of balance on the front page.

Connor was flat wrong to do so. In apologizing, he gave merit to the ignorant assertions of anonymous commentators. He also inadvertently drew a link between all Muslims and the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center nine years ago. Suddenly, there must exist a balance between 9/11 memorial services and those who practice the Muslim faith. The commentators got upset, and the paper bowed to them.

As I was saying about newspapers standing their ground…

I don’t mean publishers and editors should foolhardily stick to their guns, but they should not let a small, vocal minority push them around. Connor’s big error was assuming a newspaper and its readers must agree. It appears he is so eager to be welcomed into the community that he forgot his paper’s charge: truthfully document the daily lives of the region’s people and stand by their coverage — unless a factual error is made.

If you’re doing it right, you’ll piss off 25 percent of your readers every day.

We wrote an editorial last semester that criticized the amount of money student groups pay to host sparsely attended campus events. An administrator remarked to me that some people were upset with our stance and that the role of the paper was to promote community, not criticize it.

He was wrong. We need to raise questions and issues that maybe our readers don’t always want to hear. Whether we criticize the amount of money student groups spend or defend the right to privacy of an accused sex offender, we stand by our record of not shying from touchy issues. The way I see it, that’s kind of our job.

This semester we’re unveiling a few new features to make it easier to read and interact with the Free Press. We have a new website with a more modern design. We also have a blog where we share our process with readers. Freedom Of Information Act requests, our weekly news agendas and insights on the news-gathering process are all posted there, among other things. But the most exciting addition — for me — are the newspaper boxes we have distributed across the campuses and in downtown Portland.

We hope these changes will, in some small way, help to promote the kind of community lacking in a school with three campuses. A useful website can do that. News boxes can too. We feel the best way to serve the community is to be a visible and interactive part of the daily lives of USM students, not to agree with everything our readers say.