By Al Cross
This month’s column is mainly from someone else, because it illustrates a serious problem facing rural newspapers: How do they manage increasingly contentious public discourse and still maintain the public forum that any good local newspaper must be?
My survey of weekly editors in 2020 found that some had stopped publishing commentary on state and national issues, and that others were tempering what they wrote because of what I called “the Trump effect” and the dominance of social media, where people on all sides of controversial issues say things that few would say if looking someone in the eye. I wrote a book chapter about it; you can read it at https://tinyurl.com/2c65vz4d.
Whatever you want to call it, that phenomenon is now poisoning local discourse. That was vividly illustrated by the New Year’s column of Sharon Burton, editor and publisher of the weekly Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky. It deserves to be read in full:
By Sharon Burton
I’ve been a journalist for several decades now, and I’m honored to have won my share of awards over the years. When it comes to annual newspaper contests, the ones I’ve been most proud of were awards for writing this column.
I’m proud to say I’ve won first place more than once, and there was a time when that encouraged me to bravely share my thoughts on this page, hoping that readers would take the journey with me as I called out elected officials when I believed it was needed, when I shared words of wisdom I had learned from life’s experiences, or even when I shared a warm story about family.
I often heard from readers who either loved what I have written or really, really didn’t like it, and either way, I knew I had encouraged others to spend at least a moment in thought about something important.
Today, the part of my week I dread the most is sitting down and writing this column. I leave it until I can no longer avoid it, and this page is often the last one to make it to the printers.
Our world has changed – no, we say, the world, but in all honesty, people have changed. Because people have changed, the world has become an ugly place for us to exchange ideas and thoughts. So many people no longer value the voice of others, and it breaks my heart every week when I realize that I no longer feel encouraged to share ideas with hope that we can all learn together.
When I would write something others might disagree with, I enjoyed the calls or visits from them as we talked about our disagreements. I learned from a better journalist than myself to use the opportunity to ask for letters to the editor – to even offer to type them up so that the person who disagrees with me can share his or her opinion on the very same page where I express mine.
Those have always been my favorite conversations, the ones with the people who disagree with me. I didn’t always change my mind, although sometimes I did, but mostly it helped me view the world from a different perspective, and I think we all become better people when we can do that. I don’t have to agree with someone to empathize with a countering viewpoint; I only have to respect that person as another human with ideas, emotions, thoughts and experiences of his or her own.
I wanted to write this week about the past year and my hopes for 2023, but to be honest, I don’t feel like sharing. While newsprint doesn’t give readers the chance to write nasty little comments below the article, the free-flowing river of hate and trolling we are bombarded with daily on social media has cost us more than we realize. It has cost us accountability.
We embrace the free flow of opinion without expecting any forethought or, heaven forbid, some research or thorough reading. In the past, I always knew I better do my homework before writing about a subject on this page. Readers expected me to be informed, and I did not want to disappoint.
We used to be a community where we stood side by side with the very people we considered different from ourselves. Now, we can’t even have a winter storm that people aren’t ridiculing others because they do or don’t believe in global warming, because they think electric vehicles do or don’t make sense, or whatever the latest thing is that most people have done very little research on but hold a very strong opinion about.
It’s not even the lack of being informed that bothers me the most. It’s the attacking attitude toward others with a different opinion that boggles my mind. Why be so mean?
Don’t misunderstand – I can handle mean. I’ve had someone come into my office and rip the newspaper up in front of me (or attempt it; newsprint does not tear easily). I’ve had the paper slung across my desk in anger. I’ve had phone calls where some very nasty words were used, and I’ve had my Christianity questioned more than once. It’s all part of the job.
But I understood that those people were invested in the topic I had written about. An article didn’t sit well with their values; an elected official didn’t get his way; a family member made the news for breaking a law and they wanted me to cover it up. Those tirades I can handle.
It’s the baseless cynicism and unwillingness to THINK that has me discouraged about mankind. It’s the blind support of viewpoints with no interest whatsoever of exchanging thoughts and ideas. It’s the inability to think there is more out there for you to learn.
It takes the fun out of being right, and it certainly takes the fun out of being wrong. In the past, I’ve used this spot to share my thoughts, knowing it could go either way. I knew my readers were looking out for me, letting me know when I said something that made an impression on them and having my back when I missed the mark.
While the awards have been fun, in truth, my favorite response to “One Voice” has always been, “I don’t always agree with you, but I enjoy reading your column.”
When did we stop enjoying the people with whom we disagree?
If I were to pick out my hopes for 2023, it would be that we become a kinder, gentler world, that we see and embrace the imperfections of one another, that we seek knowledge, and we view the world through the lens of grace.
We can only better ourselves when we allow ourselves to be imperfect in front of one another. It’s through that experience that we learn, and we still have a lot to learn.
What you have just read is a frustrated editor trying to have a civil conversation with her community. At least she is still trying. I know some editors (especially those who are also publishers) who have cut back or given up that valuable work because it’s become a windmill tilt and they think they have better things to do, including keep their newspapers in business.
But sustaining rural journalism also requires making your paper valuable, and you’re in a unique position to be an honest broker of facts and opinion, offering a fair forum to all. Research has shown that the more editorials and columns a paper publishes, the more letters to the editor it gets. It becomes a meeting place for civil conversations.
Some editors have told me they don’t write columns or editorials because they don’t have enough to write about every week. You don’t have to write every week, and picking your shots can increase your impact. On the off weeks, try to fill the hole with something other than politicians’ columns. Recruit thoughtful readers, and offer to help them polish their pieces. Foster civil conversation, and make it your brand.
— Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He directs the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is seeking a new director as he heads into retirement. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.