Thursday, June 28, 2007

We just don't go there

As editors and publishers of small community newspapers, we have to wear many hats. If you're involved in running a small business of any kind, you can relate, I'm sure.

You have to do whatever it takes to get done the things that need doing — including the things you'd never ask anyone on the staff to do, like dealing with that stopped-up toilet. That's what makes running a small business fun, right?

If your business is publishing local newspapers, though, you sometimes have to assume roles that are, on the face of it, seemingly in conflict with one another. We've got a small editorial staff — those are the people who report and write the news content of our newspapers. Though our editorial staff is fairly typical of community weeklies, it's much smaller than the staffs at most dailies. As a result, our editors find themselves doing just about everything from writing obituaries to reporting and writing local news, to editing articles written by their reporters, to writing editorial commentary on local issues, writing headlines and proofreading pages. (Not to mention writing columns like this.)

We are dead serious about maintaining a strict division between our news and advertising departments. Advertisers, no matter how "big," will never dictate the editorial content (by this I mean news coverage and commentary) of our newspapers. It's not that they don't try. But we just don't go there. In fact, we have separate management overseeing advertising and editorial. If you want to pitch a news story, write a letter to the editor, or complain about a story we've written, talk to me. But if you want to buy an ad, I'll introduce you to my co-publisher, Andrew Olsen, who oversees advertising.

There's only one place where ads and news cross paths — we call it "political" advertising. In essence, these are ads whose purpose is to express a point of view rather than sell a product or service. We've got some long-standing policies about political ads.

For starters, we don't print anonymous ads. Every ad must disclose the name of the person, group or committee paying for it. And if the ad is from a group or committee, the ad must disclose the name of an individual officer (chairperson, president, treasurer, etc.).

The statements made in every political ad must be documented. This sometimes drives political party operatives nuts. Some of them want to be able to say whatever they want in their ads, and they resent it when we tell them they have to back up their allegations with facts. When in doubt, we ask for documentation, on paper. No exceptions.

When a political ad is taken by one of our sales representatives, an editor must approve it before publication. Among other things, it's the editor's responsibility to ensure that statements made in the ad are accurate and that they're documented. If an ad passes these tests, we'll print it. But publishing an ad doesn't mean we agree with the point of view expressed in it.

A newspaper is a unique business, because, even though it's a private business, it's a business that provides an important public forum. We have a duty to preserve that forum as an open forum, accessible to all. The forum extends beyond the letters pages, to the pages where paid advertising appears. As long as it's from an accountable source, and as long as it's accurate, and not libelous, we'll print it.

Last week, Broadwater Energy, whose proposal to site a huge floating liquefied natural gas facility in the Long Island Sound is something we've editorialized against more than once, took a full-page ad in our newspapers to promote its project. That we took Broadwater's ad will affect neither our coverage of the Broadwater plan nor our opinion of its merits. But Broadwater is entitled to access the public forum provided by the pages of our newspapers, just as anyone else is.

Before agreeing to run the ad, I asked for — and got — documentation of every statement Broadwater alleged in its ad. Some of the facts and figures they cite are, in my opinion, subject to interpretation and debate. But it's not my role to debate them in this context — any more than it's my role to engage in a debate when I'm reporting a story. I have to remember which hat I'm wearing, keep my opinions to myself — and save my opinions for the commentary pages.

Since this is an opinion column, I'm free to opine. I think Broadwater is a very bad idea. It doesn't belong in the Long Island Sound. That seems patently obvious. It also seems pretty obvious that the Bush administration, under which the natural gas industry has enjoyed favored son status since before the first inauguration (remember the vice president's "secret" energy policy committee?), is determined to foist this thing on us, like it or not. I for one don't like it, and I won't hesitate to say so — in the appropriate forum. But we also won't hesitate to provide full access to this forum to others with contrary opinions, no matter how fervently we disagree with them.


Natasha said...

Denise. Thanks for clarifying... still not sure i agree with the ad running, but its my right to say so and your right to do what you want.

Its too bad residents of Riverhead, Southold and other surrounding areas dont seem to be interested in wind power as an alternative energy source. Its safe and plentiful!

galegal said...

Thanks for the explanation and for your attempts to put an end to the 'midnight massacres' that once occurred in the publication preceding every election. It seemed that every year a particular party would run ads that made misleading allegations or presented outright lies as facts on the eve of an election. These were always timed so as to avoid an opportunity for response.