Tuesday, June 27, 2006

No interview, no story

In Humboldt County we have a newspaper war going on. It’s a competitive environment and we’re all involved to some degree.

But the main battle is between the two dailies. For a variety of reasons this has spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories and accusations of the owners using their clout to tilt the coverage to further their own agendas.

Today I was thinking about my experience as a reporter and whether owners ever tried, or were successful, in manipulating the coverage.

During the short time I worked for the Willits News as a freelance reporter this was never an issue. They were happy to have someone write articles, work for cheap and do so with some enthusiasm. Zero interference.

Then I worked for the Daily Democrat in Woodland. It was part of a corporate chain. My impression was that the owners didn’t care about anything but money. Editorial content was irrelevant. We probably could have printed a photo of a dog’s butt on the front page every day and, as long as the money flowed upstream, the owners wouldn’t care.

On one occasion the publisher asked me to write a feature about his Rotary buddy who won some sort of award. He was a rich prune grower. I agreed and wrote an extremely boring feature story. (I deserve a Pulitzer for resisting the temptation to write “He was a regular guy.”)

Then it was off to the Arcata Union. No interference at all, although my editor got berated by the publisher AFTER the paper ran my front-page feature on a fellow who got famous by running up on stage and breaking a statue that had just been presented to former President Ronald Reagan by a broadcasters association. The guy spent time in federal prison for this, and I interviewed him after his release.

The publisher was a conservative Republican, and the guy I wrote about was obviously a liberal Arcata activist. The publisher didn’t seem to understand that the fellow was newsworthy.

Then the Arcata Union was closed and I was transferred to the Humboldt Beacon – owned by the same publisher.

Circa 1996 there was a proposal to locate the Midway aircraft carrier in Humboldt Bay as a tourist attraction. It was an interesting idea, but there were some concerns. The Midway is BIG and Humboldt Bay is SMALL. There were some environmental issues.

Oh, and my publisher owned a bunch of land on the waterfront close to where they wanted to locate the Midway. He was opposed to the project and hired an attorney to write letters to the city detailing the reasons for his opposition.

The publisher, by the way, was slightly more elusive than Bigfoot. I met him a couple of times and it always seemed clear that I was supposed to keep my distance. I was a commoner and he was royalty, at least that’s how he acted.

The publisher contacted my editor and told him that an article needed to be written about the Midway controversy.

And then the editor assigned me the article and provided me with the attorney’s letters as background information.

I agreed to do the story, but on one condition – I would be allowed to interview the publisher. I explained to my editor that it would obviously be unfair to exclude the publisher from the story, being that he was the main opponent of project.

The editor retreated to his office.

I began making phone calls. It was an interesting story and I found myself thoroughly fascinated by the topic. This was a good story. The story had been covered by other media outlets, but I had at least two “scoops.”

First were the environmental and legal issues raised by my publisher’s attorney. He had some good points to make which I hadn’t read about anywhere else.

Second was the fact that a local millionaire newspaper owner was the main opposition to the project.

At the end of the day, my editor informed me that the publisher would not allow an interview. I informed my editor that due to the publisher’s decision, I would not be able to write the article.

I kept it simple. It was a yes or no proposition. No interview, no article.

No need for any drama or yelling. My editor knew that I meant it and didn’t challenge me.

I was happy about this because it meant I had one less article to write that week. Researching and writing an article takes time and, being that I was on salary, more hours didn’t result in more money – just more work.

So now I had more time to plot my escape from a company I no longer wished to work for.

3 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Wow. I didn't know a writer/ reporter could refuse an assignment.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Tim Hooven said...

Then you don't know Jack!

11:42 AM  
Blogger Ayman said...

word up homie!

11:57 AM  

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