Trusting Your Local Newspaper Keeps Information Alive at the Source


Recently a reader objected to some Herald-Tribune coverage by giving his own personal perspective in a long and heartfelt email. We offered to publish this critique on our opinion page. After thinking it over, and maybe cooling down a bit, the reader said he would only give us permission if we promised not to edit what he wrote.

I told him it would be irresponsible to agree to such a stipulation. I thought, but did not say, that this would be true even if his prose were free of grammar and spelling errors (it wasn’t) and didn’t stoop to disrespectful personal attacks (it did). I also thought, but did not say, that when people want the opportunity to go off half-cocked, without nitpicky corrections for readability or civility—well, that’s what social media platforms are for.

I believe the difference between what you read in the Herald-Tribune and the unexpurgated content you can access online, ostensibly for free, comes down to the difference between an argument and a rant. Both serve useful purposes. And certainly many Americans have shown they place more trust in—or at least derive more comfort from—the gusher of thoughts and shares that flow from their friends, and friends of friends, than they do in the mediated news that professional journalism can provide.

Our reports are not perfect. And as many of you notice every day, the Herald-Tribune is not innocent of grammar and spelling lapses; nor does its tone uniformly achieve the neutrality and thoughtfulness that would represent our best self. The newspaper industry in America has struggled to adapt to drastic technological and economic disruptions, and in the process we shed that layer of eagle-eyed editors whose only task it was to hold us to our own highest standards.

Even before that loss, we were far from perfect. Newspapers are built every day, from scratch, by humans in a hurry. We mess up, repeatedly, in front of everybody.

But here’s why I want you to feel good about yourself for reading us: You are keeping alive a public discourse that our community and nation can’t afford to lose. Without our reporters, editors and photographers working to tell you what you didn’t know, as opposed to validating what you think you already know, the entire media food chain would perish of starvation. Local TV news crews would have little to show except PR videos. National news outlets would focus on Beltway politics and maybe the weather. And Facebook posters would have nothing to get outraged about; your feed would be dominated by pictures of cats.

OK, a lot of that is happening already.

But thanks to your support and loyalty, local journalism outlets are buying time to figure out how to stay alive. Your patience with our experiments and mistakes allows us to keep telling you what you didn’t know. And your amazing willingness to share your thoughts through letters to the editor and guest editorials—and generously trust us to package them for publication—perpetuates an open conversation that enriches us all.

Without this public exchange on neutral ground, we have no real community. We only have pockets of people agreeing among themselves, and trashing everyone else.

That unhappy reader who took issue with us said as much when he declined our publication offer: “My words have already been conveyed on social media and have been widely applauded for their accuracy.”

I thought, but did not say, that this sort of applause is not really very wide, or very deep.

Barbara Peters Smith has served as the opinions editor for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since November 2019. She has worked as a newspaper editor in Santa Barbara, Calif., and in Gainesville, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Fla. This article originally appeared in the Herald-Tribune. It is reprinted here with permission.


3 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

My heart s with you Barbara, but the problem is that the applause is indeed very wide and very deep. We may have the moral high ground, but we do not have the numbers anymore. Instead of finding a way to bring this reader and his debate into our fold, it sounds like we sent him away where he will have the debate anyway without us.

Thursday, November 19, 2020
Philip Moore

It pays to remember that local news did not exist before New York printer Benjamin Day decided to give it a try to attract readers to his idea for a daily advertising sheet, launched on Sept. 3, 1833. Before Day and The Sun, "news" was either polemic or propaganda or tabular, praised by ideological supporters and condemned by opponents. Thanks to Day, and his belief that the common person most wanted to read about themselves and their personal interests, rather than the "big" issues of the era, the concept of objective news was born and soon became so pervasive that the eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon would later write, "If it says it in The Sun, it is so."

Trust in local news is built not on the education and erudition of the news staff, but on the day-to-day effort of reporters and editors to cover the minutiae of the daily life of their readers, from school plays to house fires, from random acts of kindness to random acts of violence. The newspaper which can do this, and do it at a reasonable cost for its readers, builds the credibility upon which to say, "It is so."

Thursday, February 11
Dan Long

We sometimes send the edited letter back for them to resubmit. This offer typically creates a more engaged and thoughtful future reader.

We also let letter writers know if something is potentially libelous, and have had the whole letter retracted once they find out that part won't see print. That solves a lot of problems, too.

We also happy if they don't want their grammar/spelling errors corrected. That runs with an editor's note stating the writer's want, which I think we only did once.

We have a policy against personal attacks, so we most certainly do share that with writers that submit letters containing them.

If we think the letter will be problematic, we have the discussion about grammar and spelling.

We believe this dialogue helps create the trust newspapers need with their communities because it is about transparency in how we handle what we print.

Our community has a very contentious referendum issue recently. Both sides asked the newspaper to take a side, either asking in person or thru email, often accompanied with a Letter to the Editor. While neither side liked our stance (which was that we didn't take a side), they at least both understood it, even if they did tell us we were wrong to publish the other side's opinion on the issue (and they most certainly did).

We kept both sides engaged, and submitting letters (and yes, we had to remove attacks and libel to do it), sometimes heavily edited, but always working with the writer to have their opinion published.

Friday, March 5