A look at newspaper ‘agendas’ from the front lines
The editor of this esteemed publication (or is it the esteemed editor of this publication?) has used considerable space in his Saturday column trying to convince skeptics that The Union doesn’t have a secret agenda that governs news coverage, and that advertisers don’t influence our coverage.
He’s fighting an uphill battle on a couple of fronts. Conspiracies always appeal to people who seek simple answers to complex questions, or who like to view the world in black and white when it is in reality several shades of gray. Besides, the editor of a newspaper is part of management – what do you expect him to say?
So I thought you might be interested in a different perspective on the issue – from down here in the trenches, where The Union’s reporters are wedged between the people they write about and the demands of their editors.
I bring a semi-unique perspective to this issue. Before I regained my sanity and returned to reporting, I spent 18 months as The Union’s assistant city editor. That meant I attended the daily meetings where the editors decided what stories were going in the paper and how they would be displayed. I also did the final edit on page one stories, which meant I had a lot to say about what was emphasized and what information was included.
Deciding what goes in a paper is somewhat like sausage making – you don’t really want to watch the process. Several opinionated people have a list of local and wire service stories in front of them, and unless the lead story is really obvious, as many different opinions about what’s the most important story that day.
I attended about 350 of these meetings when I was assistant city editor, and I never heard anybody mention the paper’s editorial position or “agenda” when we made decisions about what was going into the paper. The focus was on what was most interesting and relevant to our readers.
But what about the reporters? Do they police themselves so the editors don’t have to?
Since The Union’s “agenda” is never communicated to the reporters, we have to look to the editorials to figure out what management is thinking. I read the editorials for two reasons: To find out where the paper’s big thinkers stand on the issues of the day, and to be prepared in case somebody asks me about the knuckleheaded stand the paper has taken.
Sometimes I agree with The Union’s editorial stand, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I don’t care. But I never let the paper’s position influence my job, which is to get as close to the truth as I can and report it accurately. I’ve never had a story edited so that it would line up with the paper’s position on an issue, and during my editing days, I was never told to edit a story that way.
As The Union’s business writer, I spend the most time dealing with the issue of advertising and editorial coverage. Believe it or not, it’s not even in the top 10 of the problems I deal with. Regular advertisers rarely mention the fact when they are trying to sell me a story. The subject is usually raised by people who don’t advertise in The Union.
When I write a trend or other article that requires me to interview a variety of people, I seek out people who are knowledgeable and have something interesting to say. Their status as advertisers doesn’t influence that decision.
The biggest favor we can perform for advertisers is to produce a paper that is so relevant to the lives of our readers, it becomes a must-read six days a week. We can’t do that if we let advertising considerations influence our news judgment.
I’m not trying to convince you that editorial positions and advertising considerations don’t influence news coverage at some papers; I know better. But I can say they don’t influence coverage at The Union.
George Boardman is The Union’s business reporter.
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