No matter newspaper’s size, challenges are often similar

I recently returned from the annual Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association convention, which is held annually to bring journalists in Oregon together.

Typically, in addition to some rounds of golf on high-end resort courses and a bunch of business meetings, the event also gives us opportunities to interact with other people who do what we do, and includes seminars aimed at providing new ideas and inspiration for participants who are facing challenges common to the industry.

This year, for instance, there was talk of the threat of tariffs on newsprint, which is what the page you’re reading is printed on. (The Commerce Department said last week it would proceed with tariffs on Canadian newsprint, that willl drive up the cost of producing newspapers and other printed materials. But though that’s bad news, it’s not our topic right now.)

I’m involved in the organization, so I participate in the convention partly because I need to. But I also know that it helps your newspaper for me to be there.

One of the speakers this year  was Don Graham, whose mother Katharine Graham was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper – The Washington Post. If you’ve seen the movie “The Post,” you know who I’m talking about. How we got Don Graham to the convention is another story, but it was really interesting to hear what he said.

He told some stories, including his challenges in dealing with the demand, in 1995, purportedly from the Unabomber, who promised to stop his mail-bomb campaign, which over the years had killed three people and injured 23 others, if the Post and the New York Times would publish a 35,000-word manifesto included in the package Graham received.

From a journalist’s point of view, publishing material under a threat is a no-no on many levels, but Graham and the Times eventually decided the Post would print the document – in a separate section and in an entirely different font than the rest of the newspaper, along with a news story explaining why The Post was doing it.

Graham told about the criticism he received from other journalists and academics. But he also related how a college professor in New England recognized the ideas and writing style in the manifesto – which he read on the New York Times’ brand new website – and realized it could very possibly be his own estranged brother’s work. It was, and Ted Kaczynski was eventually arrested at a remote Montana cabin, where authorities found bomb components and explosives, an original typed copy of the manifesto – well, the rest is history.

In this business there are a lot of ethical complexities and we’re happy when we can make the right call.

Another thing that struck me was how Graham decided to sell the Post to Amazon chief Jeff Bezos in 2013. He said, in so many words, that it became apparent to him and other family members that maybe they were no longer the best people to own the newspaper, given the challenges facing the industry. But they were also determined to sell it only to someone they were convinced would serve their readers, not just purchase it as a business investment.

That, I think, was what impressed me the most about what he had to say. This is a smart guy, from a successful and intelligent family, who went to Harvard and headed the nation’s capital’s newspaper for nearly 30 years. But it wasn’t just a money-maker for him, though, as he said about selling the newspaper, profit is necessary to survive.

Graham’s wife, Amanda Bennett, whom he met while they were colleagues on the Pulitzer Prize Board, also spoke to us.

She also has high credentials – Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, editor at the Oregonian (where she led a team of reporters to another Pulitzer), senior editor at Bloomberg News, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer,  and most recently, director of Voice of America.

She started her talk with words from Edward R. Murrow, first director of VOA: “The news may be good for us; the news may be bad for us; but we will tell you the truth.”

Bennett’s first main point of emphasis was that VOA is not (with great emphasis) a propaganda machine, as many assume.

She noted that, by law, although the agency is funded by tax dollars and her position is a political appointment, it is independent of outside interference with its content.

She said VOA’s audience around the world is 237 million, in 45 languages, and its “trust factor” ratings are high – 40 percent in Iran, 90 percent-plus in the Balkans, for instance.

Bennett said the reason is that people in those countries, who are inundated with propaganda, know spin. And, she said, they have a sense for when they are being told the truth.

“There is no such thing as ‘fake news,’” Bennett said. “If it’s fake, it’s not news.”

She spent considerable time talking about fake news and what the “polarization” of America, and she said she believes the news media is to blame for contributing to that, not by covering news stories that make people uncomfortable, but by injecting too much personal agenda into reporting. Well said.

Bennett talked for a long time and I’m really condensing what she said, but it was encouraging to hear her an “old-fashioned” (her term) philosophy of journalism that emphasizes facts over opinion in reporting.

“People can make up their own minds once you tell them the facts,” she said.

In her view, “True journalists go to meetings and show people what they don’t know.”

If any of this sounds familiar, I hope so. I want us to be an old-fashioned newspaper, whose job is to make sure our readers know what’s going on in this community, without a lot of subjective modifiers sprinkled into what we tell you.

Our job is to ask for documents and attend meetings and  figure out how to get important information to the public. That’s the job of journalists everywhere, and you’re the ones we’re doing it for.