By: Margaret Allen
Kansas daily weathers the storm of reader protest after
devoting extensive coverage to the marriage of two men
IN SALINA, KAN., gay couples who decide to get married can look forward to a standard wedding write-up in their hometown paper.
On Jan. 24, the Salina Journal ran the first gay wedding announcement ever published in a general-readership Kansas newspaper. Despite negative fallout afterward, Journal editor George Pyle stands by his decision.
The issue will no doubt continue to surface throughout the United States as more gays and lesbians come out of the closet. Editors who publish such announcements can expect to get an earful, however, as the 36-year-old Pyle can testify.
“”We God-fearing Christian people in mid-America don’t need this kind of news,”” wrote one of the Journal’s 40,000 subscribers in a letter to the editor. Some other letter writers said they were shocked and appalled, while still others said the coverage disgusted them and made them sick.
Only a handful wrote to commend the Journal for publishing both the wedding announcement and a full-page cover story about the marriage of Sherwood “”Skip”” Bishop and Steven Durant in a ceremony at the couple’s Salina home.
While some subscribers canceled their subscriptions in the weeks following, the story initially sparked record sales of the Sunday edition as it set the town talking.
“”We never sell out ? and Sunday we sold out,”” said Pyle. “”We had people coming in to buy the Sunday paper on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Some were pleased and some were shocked, but they all bought it.””
The Journal, one of the two largest papers in the Kansas-based Harris Group, circulates to 40 counties.
Situated on the Kansas prairie, Salina itself has a history that is a mix of conservative and liberal influences. It is the former site of a military base and now cultivates a substantial aircraft manufacturing industry. Yet the city also boasts a strong arts culture and is home to the nationally recognized Land Institute, a pioneer organization in the environmental activism movement.
Pyle, who does not deny he is a liberal, indicated he did not think the paper had any other choice than to publish the engagement and wedding announcements.
“”Our editorial policy has always been in favor of equal rights,”” said Pyle. “”It would be kind of hypocritical to say that on the editorial page and then to say on the lifestyle pages that ‘We’re not going to include you.’ “”
Even so, in the beginning he had not planned to give the wedding any extra play, but Journal managing editor Scott Seirer argued for expanding the coverage, noting that readers would naturally wonder about the legality of a gay marriage, how the men felt, and the legal challenges facing a same-sex couple.
“”He was right,”” said Pyle. “”We were raising a bunch of questions without answering them and that’s not the kind of thing a newspaper ought to do.””
The result was a Sunday cover story package on the Lifestyle second front. Central to the page was a color photo of the newlyweds at their reception, anchored by three stories written by assistant lifestyles editor Becky Fitzgerald.
One story told how the couple met and fell in love, a second highlighted the Presbyterian minister who heard the vows, and a third explained that Kansas neither licenses nor acknowledges homosexual marriages, nor does it recognize same-sex partners as next of kin for legal purposes.
A couple of sidebars provided readers with a selection of books for reading more about homosexual relationships and local support groups for homosexuals.
Inside the same section on the Weddings page, the Journal published the usual wedding photo and write-up about the couple, running it alongside announcements about heterosexual couples. (continued)
While the wedding cover page brought a strong reaction, Pyle said an earlier engagement announcement went largely unnoticed by the public. The couple brought it in and the Journal ran that without fanfare among the other engagement announcements.
The only thing out of the ordinary was that Pyle had alerted Journal publisher Harris Rayl and the rest of the staff to brace for a reaction. Only five complaints trickled in.
Pyle figures most readers probably did not realize the engagement announcement was for two men: Readers may have assumed the name “”Skip”” belonged to a woman; and engagement photos run little more than nine picas wide ? just slightly larger than a half-column, so it would have been difficult to make out details of the couple.
“”If you weren’t paying real close attention, it’s quite possible it could have been missed,”” he said.
In contrast, the wedding story prompted 116 people to cancel their subscriptions ? 12 of whom have since come back ? because they felt that the paper was condoning and promoting homosexuality.
Following its publication, the paper ran two more short news stories to let readers know there had been a substantial protest and a fair number of canceled subscriptions. Pyle responded with an editorial page column proposing that Kansas should recognize gay and lesbian marriages.
“”It’s time for America to get out of this massive state of denial. They’re queer. They’re here. Get used to it,”” he wrote, playing on the familiar homosexual rights slogan “”We’re queer/We’re here.””
Even photo editor Fritz Mendell jumped into the strife with a later editorial column that also advocated tolerance.
Readers who did not like all the gay coverage pinned the blame directly on Pyle, though.
One reader wrote: “”I’ll keep taking the Salina Journal in hopes a banner headline will soon read: ‘George Pyle replaced as Salina Journal editor.’ “”
A 15-year Harris employee, Pyle says a group of Salina residents calling themselves Project Concern are now attempting to oust him.
“”They’re a bunch of people, and I don’t know how many, who are concerned that the Salina Journal under my leadership is too far left and too accepting of all this new stuff,”” said Pyle.
Besides the gay coverage, group members have complained about an earlier front-page Halloween feature on Salina’s self-proclaimed witch.
Pyle says he is used to this kind of treatment. This isn’t the first time his style of newspapering has sparked controversy. Almost three years ago he was managing editor at a smaller, 5,000-circulation Harris paper in Chanute, Kan. Some of the 9,500 residents there objected to what they considered Pyle’s liberal editorial positions.
A letter-writing campaign was launched at Harris headquarters, asking Pyle be booted. Even though he did leave the paper a short time later, it was coincidental and for a move up the corporate ladder as editor at Salina, a paper seven times larger.
Meanwhile, Journal readers can probably count on more to come. “”I think that’s the greatest thing that newspapers can do ? to provide something for people to talk about,”” said Pyle. “”If people just read a newspaper and toss it aside, then what’s the point?”nE&P
?The Salina (Kan.) Journal ran a Sunday cover story package on the Lifestyle second front. Central to the page was a color photo of the newlyweds at their reception, anchored by three stories written by assistant lifestyles
editor Becky Fitzgerald.
?(Allen is a free-lance journalist based in Hutchinson, Kan.)