As I write this Unorganized Territory, I’m preparing to travel to Brainerd for the final session of the program I have been participating in this summer, the Blandin Foundation Editor & Publisher Community Leadership Program (E&P). It’s been an interesting experience although I’ve had a few “What was I thinking?” moments.
Two of the sessions have started on Thursday, which is the day we do our final proofreading, packaging, and sending to the printer. So it’s tough to be out of town that day. Frantically trying to get everything printer-ready before Thursday caused a few of those “What was I thinking?” thoughts.
The purpose of the E&P program is to allow editors and publishers to have some time away from their dayto day activities to look at the overall picture of the newspaper and its role in the community. The program is based on the Blandin Foundation’s 8 Dimensions of a Healthy Community, which are Life-Long Learning, Inclusion, Spiritual, Recreational and Artistic Opportunity, Environmental Stewardship, Infrastructure and Services, Safety and Security, Community Leadership and Economic Opportunity.
The Blandin Foundation asks participants in its E&P program and its other community leadership programs to take a hard look at these topics. Each participant is asked to evaluate how his or her community is doing in these dimensions. Are there life-long learning opportunities for all, from preschooler to the elderly? Are there adequate police and fire services so residents feel safe? Do community members care about the natural environment and work to protect it? Are all members of the community—regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity—included in making decisions that affect them?
Those are just a few of the questions raised in the Blandin Leadership Program. And although the program offers community building exercises and shares examples of what successful Blandin participants have accomplished, there are few answers. There is no “one size fits all” model of a healthy community or how to create it. I think at some point every Blandin Leadership program participant worries that he or she won’t make a difference, as the Blandin Foundation asks. I think we all ask, “What was I thinking?”
For me, participating in the program meant taking a hard look at the Cook County News-Herald and meant asking for feedback. That is why the News-Herald, with help from Cook County Higher Education, conducted a newspaper focus group back in May.
The focus group was not as well attended as I would have liked, but those who were there offered invaluable advice. Some of it was difficult to hear. It was challenging to take criticism of our coverage of some troubling news stories, especially when many of the concerns were due to the headlines on articles.
Ask any writer—headlines are tough. It is extremely difficult to summarize a 500 -1,200 word article in five to eight words. It is hard to encapsulate the idea of the article in just a few words without sensationalizing the content. As I listened to some suggestions for alternate headlines that could have been used, I thought the ideas were great. But, as I listened to some of the complaints, I also couldn’t help thinking, “What was I thinking?”
When I compiled the results of the focus group and shared it with my friends and co-workers at the News- Herald, I was met with mixed reactions, ranging from “No way can we do that” to “That’s not a bad idea.” We’ve enacted some of the suggestions and are working on others. But as I distributed the suggestions and comments from the focus group, I could see my fellow News-Herald staffers thinking, “What was she thinking?”
Today, as I’m again hurrying to head off to the last E&P session, I am getting very nervous about the “final exam” of the program. I have to give a 15-minute presentation on what I’ve learned through the program and what actions the News-Herald will implement to help make our community a better place. I will be offering a Power Point presentation, only the second I’ve ever done in my life. “What was I thinking?”
It is especially hard because I don’t feel that I’ve done much in the way of community building yet. I am truthfully struggling with the balance of building community and allowing the community to have a voice. And as a newspaper, we cover not only the fun stuff—the festivals, the new businesses, the births and weddings—but also the tragic deaths, the accidents, fires, and court matters.
I keep turning to a George Orwell quote that is in rotation on my email footnote: Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.
My Power Point presentation addresses that. I will share my conflict and struggle to find balance. And I will admit that we have been taking baby steps.
We’ve tweaked our letter to the editor policy to put the responsibility to be respectful on submitters. We’ve resurrected our “Get Involved in Government” feature, providing a “Clip and Save” list of various government boards with information on when and where they met. We are trying to be cautious about headlines and pull-quotes, not highlighting something that doesn’t represent the article well. There are more things in the works—stay tuned.
I’m also thinking of starting a “Coffee with the News-Herald” monthly event, meeting with readers at the local coffee shop. I’m a bit nervous about that though—what do you think readers? Should we do it? Or will it be another thing that makes me say, “What was I thinking?”
Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you think!
After enlightenment, the laundry
Zen quote from Mirja P. Hanson Editor & Publisher Community Leadership Program facilitator
Spoiler alert. There will be some whining in this Unorganized Territory. I’ll try to bring myself back around to positive thoughts at the end of this week’s column, but I really need to share a pet peeve. It’s because I’ve received a glut of political campaign press releases from all over the region, the state and the country—and it’s only the primary.
I’m guessing that faux news releases will really ramp up as we get into September and October. I wouldn’t mind these announcements if they actually contained real information on a candidate. But the majority of the “news” sent out by politicians is reports of alleged misbehavior by their opponents.
I’m somewhat used to that. I think we Americans know when a political ad is tweaked and comments are taken out of context and twisted. I am inclined not to vote for someone who uses that sort of campaign tactics. The advertisements and news I want to see from candidates is where they stand on issues.
I want to hear whether or not they have some sort of plan to resolve the flood of children across our southern border. I want to hear constructive suggestions on what can be done to fix the glitches in the Affordable Care Act and the devastating mishandling of veterans affairs. I want to know what my representatives are going to do to work with the other party—not how they are going to stonewall one another.
Unfortunately, we don’t get that sort of information. And the straw that broke the camel’s back this week was yet another ad sent out to a mailing list of Minnesota newspapers telling us about the upcoming campaign ad to be launched on television— and the millions of dollars spent on that campaign.
At least once a day I receive an email announcing, “Thanks to our generous supporters the Joe Candidate campaign is airing two TV advertisements during the primary season. The initial ad began airing across the 8th District on August 16.”
Or, an email decries the falsehoods in an opponent’s ad and asks for the print media’s help in setting the record straight.
So obviously, these political machines realize that newspapers are an effective way to reach voters. But for some reason they don’t want to spend any of the hundreds, thousands, or millions of dollars they have raised in campaign funds to get their messages out in newspapers.
The decline of the newspaper is vastly overstated. Time and again the newspaper industry has surveyed its readers and advertisers and finds that people are reading and that newspapers are trusted sources for information. As recently as 2014, a study conducted for the Minnesota Newspaper Association by Scarborough queried Minnesotans. The survey found that 89 percent of Minnesotans had accessed a newspaper in print or in digital format in the past month. The net print readership was found to be 71 percent. Even more important was the reasons why people turn to newpapers. The survey found that newspapers were the most important resource for 56 percent of readers interested in local schools; for 50 percent of readers concerned about crime; 52 percent of readers looking for “things to do;” and 49 percent of readers wanting to learn about local government.
There are more reasons why people read their local newspaper and I wish these massive political campaigns realized that. I don’t know how candidates and campaign managers think newspapers will be able to stay afloat to help spread their message without their support. There is no trickle down economy when it comes to campaign financing.
Fortunately the story is quite different for our local politicians. Many of the folks running for township, Tribal government, city, county, school, hospital board, sheriff, or other elected seat, place ads in the Cook County News-Herald.
We truly appreciate it. Not only do we believe that we are one of the best methods to reach the people in the community who vote, the ads help us cover the cost of reporting on the election. Their hard-earned dollars stay in the community with us and help us keep the 123-year tradition of the Cook County News- Herald alive.
Their funding helps tide the local newspaper over for a bit after the election. It helps us cover those folks once they are elected and serving on the county board or the city council or a township board. They may not appreciate that we report comments made by an upset citizen or when we carefully monitor their actions to make sure they are not violating open meeting laws.
But these candidates support us anyway, with their campaign ads and by being cooperative and providing real answers to tough questions.
It takes a village to run a newspaper. We’re thankful to all of the loyal subscribers and advertisers who help us bring all the news to the community. We couldn’t do it without you.
Never argue with someone
who buys ink by the barrel.
Charles Bruce Brownson
Cook County News-Herald staffers love to get out and about the county. So we decided, while we are traveling the highway and bushwhacking through the forest, to take pictures to see if our readers can guess WHERE ARE WE?
We did not receive any entries that were wrong in our July WHERE ARE WE? which was a little bit different than past locations. It was not a scenery shot, but was instead inside a building and we had a good response from people who knew that the photo was taken inside Johnson Heritage Post in Grand Marais. Thanks to Carolyn Wilhelm for sharing the idea.
And congratulations to Donna Gestel of Grand Marais whose entry was drawn from the correct answers. Donna wins a one-year subscription to the Cook County News-Herald.
Try your luck! Take a look at the August photo.
If you think you know where we were when we took the picture, send us your answer. The location will be announced next month and a winner will be drawn from all the correct answers. Whoever is drawn will win a free one-year subscription to the Cook County News-Herald (a $30 value). Good luck!
Return answer by mail, e-mail or fax to:
Cook County News-Herald
PO Box 757
Grand Marais MN 55604
Answer to the August WHERE ARE WE? must be received by September 15, 2014.