News: It’s all about the community

Sunday, September 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dear readers:

Did you ever take a moment to read the statement at the top of the Missourian editorial page? It was written by Walter Williams, the man who founded the Columbia Missourian 98 years ago this month, and the man who started the world’s first journalism school.

It says: “I believe that the public journal is a public trust; That all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; That acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.”

Does the Missourian live up to that goal? Nope. Do we try? I think so.

And yet I know you don’t always believe that about the Missourian or about the media in general.

Last week, the Missourian ran a story about women who were photographed for the Girls of MU calendar. The controversy: Some of the women thought they were put in a compromising position when the photographer asked them to remove most of their clothing. I heard some people say the Missourian was just sensationalizing the news — you’re just trying to sell newspapers, Tom — or that the story wasn’t news at all.

Missourian staffers critiqued the story Thursday morning. (You’re invited to attend; the meeting is at 11 a.m. every day.) There was general agreement that the story was overplayed. It was at the top of the front page, across all six columns. The story didn’t meet the bar of importance and impact in that position. There also was discussion about specific sentences or paragraphs that could have been improved.

But all in all I think the story should have been done.

I had an editor once who would talk about GPT, which stands for “gets people talking.” There are certain stories that everyone in town wants to know about, even if it won’t affect their taxes or improve their roads. People were already talking about the calendar controversy before the Missourian wrote a word about it. This story helped sort rumor from fact as reporters went out to verify whatever could be verified, and editors made sure only the verifiable parts of the story made it into print.

Is a wedding “news”? Many people are talking about the upcoming nuptials of Whitney Kroenke, daughter of local kazillionaires Stan and Ann. You could even say that Saturday’s MU football game isn’t “news” — it is, after all, just a game.

But all those stories get people talking. Some of them, like the calendar story, have important underlying issues even if they aren’t explicit in the story.

As I write, I am attending a Missouri Press Association conference at the Lake of the Ozarks. At one of the sessions, Tom Eblin presented statements from editorial pages across the state. Here are some:

n Lincoln County Journal: “Our goal is to report on the events of Lincoln County, doing our best to be the community in print.”

n Joplin Globe: “Our Mission is to be an essential part of people’s lives by providing valuable information on what’s happening in their world.”

n Washington Missourian: “Our aim shall always be to promote the best interests of the community we serve. We shall print the news accurately, impartially and without favoritism as far as humanly possible.”

Sure, newspapers are out to sell stuff — their paper and advertisers’ products. And sometimes they report on things that won’t shake world events. But there is a higher aspiration, as far as is humanly possible.

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