In a time when newspapers must stay alert and focused to survive, it’s never been more important to maintain credibility and public respect.
Yet, in a misguided attempt to win advertisers and to please friends in powerful places, newspaper chains are disregarding the age-old rules that have helped them maintain credibility and reader trust.
For newspapers to survive, communities must feel we look out for their best interests, that we’re they’re eyes, ears and voice, and that what we write is fair, honest, accurate and without bias. It’s pretty simple: Readers won’t invest in us if they don’t believe us. Sadly, communities are losing trust in their newspapers because newspaper owners are sabotaging the trust that journalists have worked so hard to create.
At one small daily, editors were ordered to change all references to a controversial “arena” project to the word “facility.” Reporters weren’t going to be told. Journalists in that newsroom could only imagine that the city’s mayor had whispered in the new publisher’s ear that calling the arena an “arena” could jeopardize federal projects funding. The city didn’t want the “facility” to be seen as a sports complex because the fed money was for cultural projects, not sports projects. Reporters protested and explained the dangers of being manipulated by outside interest groups, but the newspaper’s editor just didn’t get it. Of course, the edict leaked out and was published in a story by that city’s radical newspaper, so the public found out about it.
Sometimes, perception of integrity is just as important as integrity itself. In another misguided attempt to get ahead, a small city newspaper wanted to capture a lucrative advertising account with a new big-box, big-chain retailer. The retailer played hardball. To win the contract, the newspaper provided a favourable story about the new store in its editorial section. The story appeared the same day as the retailer’s first full-page ad. I can only imagine the reaction among other retailers who wouldn’t have had the pull to attain such credibility-building coverage. If you don’t already know this, getting a news story in the newspaper can provide an organization with instant credibility. Unfortunately, the compromise did untold, irreparable damage to the newspaper’s credibility.
There are other examples, but I’ll stop there. My point is that newspaper owners are forgetting that the cornerstone of maintaining readership is maintaining reader trust. They’re shooting themselves in the foot and they just won’t believe it. I became a journalist because I believed it was a proud, noble profession. I held my head high knowing I was making a difference, that I was exposing bad guys, and revealing the truth. That’s getting harder and harder to do. It’s enough to make a grown hack cry.