Sunday, February 15, 2015

A VETERAN EDITOR AND FORMER BOSS SPEAKS UP ON PAY-FOR-PLAY REPORTING

My old friend and former boss, Henry J. Holcomb, who retired a few years ago from his last newspaper position  at The Philadelphia Inquirer, posted a comment on my last blog entry "NEWSPAPER ETHICS: MAINTAINING (OR NOT) THE LINE BETWEEN DOLLARS AND SENSE" (Feb. 12) that I think deserves more prominent play than just as simple tagged on response to the entry.

I've always held Henry -- who, as managing editor of The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, hired me away from The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., to be his business editor -- in high regard as one of the best, though not always easiest to please, editors I ever worked for.

Henry is one of the most philosophically thoughtful editors I've known, and that aspect of him frequently showed up in our editor meetings when he would toss out for discussion an often controversial idea or concept that would land like a hand grenade chunked onto the middle of the conference table where we all gathered.

One of the things I admired most about Henry was his finely honed sense of journalistic principles and ethics and the fact the he truly believed in the adage that holds "the purpose of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," which seemed to serve as one of his philosophical guideposts in managing the news department at The Star-Telegram.

Henry departed Fort Worth in, I think, 1983 to go to an editing position at The Inquirer, which under legendary editor Gene Roberts was, at the time, perhaps the nation's leading newspaper when it came to afflicting the comfortable, but his influence remained with me throughout the rest of my newspaper career -- another 30 years.

Weighing in on pay-for-play journalism, here is what Henry had to say:


"Steve: You raised issues here that need raising (and stirred unpleasant memories of the Camel scoreboard affair).

Sponsored content is spreading in digital media. Ads pop up in stories — even in digital products of good papers — according to data modern technology is harvesting for advertiser about the individual reader’s needs and interests. This is leading to stronger efforts to manipulate content — and even greater reader cynicism about journalists' ability to tell it like it is.

Crowdfunding is unlikely to produce clear thinking and vigilance that serves the whole community. I've written and edited so many stories that irritated a large number of people for a time until the full impact of what was being reported sunk in.

Reporting funded by foundations poses risks, too. Foundations tend to be controlled by the wealthy whose good fortune gives them a different feel and sense of a community. Some may not to meddle in the stories they fund. But they clearly influence which projects were pursued.

This, of course, is hazardous to the health of a free society. So write on.

You remember the past more fondly than I do, though.

These issues have always been a struggle. There have been a few newspaper owners like James B. Quigley of The Orange (Texas) Leader, where I worked long ago, who understood the importance of credibility and what built it. For example, he stood strong when a local car dealer threatened to pull his ads if we reported on his son's rather public misbehavior.  Mr. Quigley told the dealer that he hoped he wouldn’t do that — because that would mean he couldn’t afford a new car.

'If we don’t run the story,' Mr. Quigley said, 'the people in this city won’t respect either of us.' (Eventually declining car sales forced the dealer to advertise again,  and Mr. Quigley could afford to buy his badly needed a new car.)

Few fresh-out-of-business-school publishers of papers owned by the big chains have been able to be as principled as Mr. Quigley was on this story -- and on broader issues related to the news and commentary needs of the community. Missing the corporate revenue goals has long been very hazardous to career health."

Thanks for the comment, Henry, I couldn't agree with you more.


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