Former Editor Walker Lundy Urges Papers to ‘Raise Hell’ More Often

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By: Joe Strupp

Walker Lundy, former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers, blasted the newspaper industry in a column today that said daily papers do not do enough to “raise hell” and too often “print more feel-good journalism in hopes of making readers happier.”

In the opinion piece for the Charlotte (NC) Observer, where Lundy worked years ago, the retired newsroom boss who lives in nearby Sherrills Ford, N.C., urged newspapers to get back to the tradition of shaking up readers and stop cutting resources to please shareholders.

“Newspapers are looking inward these days, struggling to solve a variety of their own problems. Readers are bailing out like frat boys when the beer keg runs dry, and profit-hungry Wall Streeters are muscling publicly held newspaper companies to sell themselves to any gang of rich guys who can do a deal,” Lundy wrote. He added that many owners are too ready to “blow up sizable portions of their newsrooms in hopes the moneymen won’t demolish the rest.

“The reason the Founding Fathers started with freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights is because they wanted to protect journalistic hell-raising, stories that lead to change and that someone — often the government — would prefer newspapers not print,” he continued.

“Here’s the social contract our founders envisioned: Newspapers would print the truth and raise hell, even if it angered people sometimes. In turn, citizens would read the newspaper and be informed, even if it sometimes made them outraged enough to spit out their breakfast. Truth is, readers, if you always agree with your newspaper, you need to read another newspaper.”

Lundy, who worked at the Inquirer for less than two years when he retired in 2003, then pointed to some recent examples of how such timid coverage has affected readers, declaring “as a result, too many Americans are uninformed or misinformed. And that is a threat to democracy. Don’t believe me? Remember how long it took a majority of Americans to figure out the falsity of the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq was involved in 9-11?”

Interestingly, Lundy does not cite his former newsroom in Philadelphia, which has been under the cost-cutting knife since it was purchased by new local owners last summer. Instead, he takes a shot at the Observer itself, another former Knight Ridder paper, now owned by McClatchy.

“In my opinion, the Observer is a very good newspaper, especially when you grade it on the curve of American newspapers,” Lundy wrote. But, he later stated, “the Observer doesn’t raise hell enough to suit me. Too often, the readers — through letters to the editor and The Buzz [an online forum] — do a better job than the staff.” He adds that “The Observer has won Pulitzer Prizes in previous decades exposing brown lung disease and the PTL Club. Today, on page 1, instead of hell-raising, you are more likely to find an inspirational story, maybe with the word ‘plucky’ in it somewhere.”

Lundy ends by urging readers to demand that their paper do more “hell-raising” journalism. “Readers, you get the kind of newspaper you demand. And that will get you the kind of democracy you deserve,” he writes. “Speak up for hell-raising journalism or put up with things as they are. It’s your choice.”

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