Boycott over editorial ends happily for thrice-weekly S.C. paper p. 19

By: Dorothy Giobbe NEWSPAPERS FREQUENTLY FIND themselves justifying their mission to an unsympathetic public, but, as a thrice-weekly newspaper in Lancaster, S.C., discovered, sometimes support comes from the most unexpected places.
Over the past couple of years, the Lancaster News has printed a number of editorials against video poker payoffs ? video poker machines located mostly in convenience stores. Players collect winnings from the convenience stores, which keep a percentage of the payoffs.
The editorials never raised the ire of convenience store owners until Oct. 2 ? when, in an editorial, the News urged voters to abolish the payoffs in a statewide referendum on Nov. 8.
The convenience stores reacted stridently. The next day, 40 store owners refused to sell the News and demanded that all the paper's racks be removed from their property. Rack sales account for about 3% to 4% of the News' total 13,500 circulation.
A hastily formed alliance of the stores and a video machine supplier began targeting News advertisers, and initiated a telephone campaign to muster support from other small businesses in the county.
Although Benjamin Hamm, editor of the News, was "surprised" by the reaction, he defended his paper's editorial position, along with its news coverage of the issue. In an editorial, he accused the store alliance of making an attempt to quash open debate.
"The store owners apparently believe that if they can restrict the distribution of the Lancaster News, they can keep people from hearing all sides about the upcoming vote," Hamm wrote.
"We believe that the public should be as fully informed as possible. And we believe that a good newspaper includes a strong opinion page and is willing to take stands on community issues."
"We believe that is the right way, the only way, to ensure our credibility and your trust."
While he had complete confidence in his newspaper's mission, Hamm was surprised that so many supporters in the community sided with the News.
In the days after the story was publicized, several hundred people called the News, with 98% backing the newspaper's right to take a stand on the issue, Hamm said. Other supporters said they would refuse to shop in stores that didn't sell the News.
Businesses and churches called to ask if the racks could be moved to their property. Also, the News gained 10 new subscriptions from readers who were worried that they wouldn't be able to get the paper from the racks.
Before the stores announced their refusal to sell the paper, community involvement in the video poker issue was negligible. But, in the days after, the paper received "well over" one hundred letters taking both sides of the issue, Hamm said. The News has run double editorial pages to accommodate as many of the letters as possible.
"We were willing to take whatever fallout if people didn't agree with us, but the people were standing up for the fact that the paper had a right to an opinion and should take a leadership role in the community," Hamm said.
"It's reassuring as a journalist that at a point of crisis there are people who will say 'we believe in what you're doing,' " the editor noted.
Five days after they began it, the store owners ended the boycott. During a meeting with News editors, Hamm said an understanding had been reached.
"While they understood we were opposed editorially, they felt we could be objective in our news coverage, and that they could have their say through advertising or letters to the editor," he said.
In fact, he noted, the store owners now run a full-page ad in every edition of the News to publicize their point of view.
Hamm said the experience "was a good reminder of the value of public debate and a newspaper's role in public debate ? that is important and needs to be protected."
"People don't tell you every day that they like what you're doing, and when they did tell us, when we heard their responses, it was very encouraging to us," Hamm said.


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