Editor’s Column: Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts

Although the phrase is commonly attributed to the Joe Friday character on Dragnet (a popular TV show in the 1950s), it was actually coined as part of a Dragnet parody. Nevertheless, it makes for a good rule of thumb in journalism. On any given day, emails and phone calls (and sometimes live, warm bodies) come through the newspaper office with story suggestions, which we welcome. However, a hefty percentage of those suggestions can’t be used, and I’d like to explain why, so that no one thinks we’re just ignoring them.

1. Opinions, however valid, are not newsworthy. I know this comes as a shock to all of us who are soaking up social media and watching our presidential candidates play Twitter wars, but it’s true. We can’t base articles on an opinion, even our own. We do research the story behind the opinion to see if there’s something we can follow up on, but most of the time it’s something best suited as a letter to the editor. We welcome those, although there are rules about what we can and can’t print even in our opinion pages, too.

2. Getting the facts isn’t as easy as it seems. Let’s face it, people cringe when they know the newspaper is calling, or in attendance at a meeting. Folks tend to avoid returning your call or responding to your email because they don’t want to be misrepresented, they don’t want to be misquoted, and they don’t want to be made a fool of in print. We don’t want that either, we just want to get the truth out. The alternative to getting all the facts in the newspaper as a matter of public record is simply letting the rumor mill run amok, and that’s not good for anyone. So if we call, it’s because we’re hoping to get your side of the story, not because we want to skewer you in the press.

3. A wise man (former Herald Times owner Mitch Bettis) once told me that there’s no way to completely eliminate bias from our reporting because, when it comes down to it, we’re all biased. But we can take steps to eliminate as much bias as possible, and that starts with limiting our reporting of news events to factual, confirmable data. It’s not necessarily the best way to sell papers or go viral on the Internet, but at least we can go home with a clear conscience.

4. Readers have a job, too, according to 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon in “The Essays”: Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Come to think of it, that’s good advice for all of us, no matter what we’re reading.

I grew up in a small town. Our biggest complaint as teenagers back in the ’80s was that there “was nothing to do” where we lived. So, we used that as our excuse (even though we lived in an amazing resort community with tons of recreational opportunities), to party and do stupid things. Really, really stupid things. That same excuse is still floating around every small town in America. And kids are getting hurt, dying, or ending up with police records that will haunt them and hinder them for years. So this editor’s note isn’t for the adults—although we need to be responsible and not help the youth around us do stupid things—this is for all of the young people out there.

  • Life, though it looms broad and long before you right now, is painfully short and fragile. Ask anyone who has just lost a loved one.
  • As special as you are (and you know you are, because your parents and teachers have been telling you so for years), you aren’t invincible. Accidents happen, and when you put yourself in foolish situations with foolish people, accidents happen more often. n You might not think it matters, but what happens to you affects countless other people. Your family, your friends, your teachers, your neighbors, etc.
  • Everywhere is the same. Kids in New York City are also whining that there’s nothing to do. The problem isn’t a lack of opportunities, it’s a lack of motivation to find something productive, proactive and positive to occupy your time. Believe me, adults have the same problem, we’re just tired and we have bills to pay. So I guess this is a plea. It’s the same plea I’ve made to my own young adult children. Find something to do and do it well. Use all that amazing energy you have right now to do something awesome. Stop risking your health and your future for the sake of a stupid party. Don’t take foolish chances, remember, life is short. Watch out for each other. Don’t let your friends do dumb things, either, because you care about them. Wear your seatbelt. Don’t drink and drive, and don’t hang out with people who do. If life is a gamble, why stack the cards against yourself?

Just three short weeks after Septemberfest, I’m sending out an urgent cry for help to our Rangely neighbors. We need your help! We need information about meetings and local events and photos. I understand people have been frustrated in the past because they sent things in that never made their way to the printed page, but this is a new day. For those of you who shared story tips with us at Septemberfest, we are in the process of tracking those down, but we are finding it difficult to get people to return calls and emails. So, if you’ve ever wanted to write for the paper, or know of a fun activity or cool story going on, please don’t keep it to yourself! Send it to editor@theheraldtimes.com by Monday at 5 p.m. for that week’s paper.

3 Comments

  1. Nikki, thank you, this is a good commentary and I appreciate your commitment to the paper and your desire to cover Rangely news with integrity. If you want to cover Rangely properly, you are going to have to hire a full, or close to full time reporter who lives in this community. Important things are happening in our school district and in economic development, and other areas and it would be really good if the public was aware. It is also good for boards to have the accountability of being in the public eye- they make more considered, careful and fair choices.. The meetings are at 6:15 or 7 at night, or at 7:30 am, and are the only way to get a factual picture of what’s going on, but a reporter is almost never present, if something is written about it, it is based on reading minutes, or talking to someone who was there, not by being there, being a presence, and being brave enough to ask clarifying questions. Important decisions are talked about regularly in meetings, that affect our whole community, but people don’t know about them, and they need to. Things very worthy of reporting on have been discussed at the last several Town Council, RDA and School Board meetings, and have been for a long time. Your current system for reporting Rangely news relies essentially on local volunteers to cover things when they have time, and need to pick and choose what to cover- there is no consistency- and how thoroughly to investigate it because it takes a lot of time to keep up on things, and they get paid a pittance. That’s why an excellent writer like Heather Zadra quit- she got burned out and she wasn’t treated well or paid well to start with. You have an excellent, unbiased writer in Jen Hill, but she lives way out of town, and can and will only do so much for the small amount she gets paid. And mistakes get made- like reporting that the RDA board was made up of representatives from the local taxing districts in the recent article on the Better Cities project. Mistakes will always happen, but they will happen less if you are actually invested in this community. You don’t have that problem in Meeker, because all of your staff live there and are integrated in the community. If you are sincere about wanting to be a voice for Rangely, you will need to create a decently paid position for someone who lives here. I’d love to know your thoughts on that. Feel free to email or call: 970-274-1239

  2. Hi Beth,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and opinions. I figured I would just reply here, so that other folks who have the same questions will know what’s up.
    First, I concur that having a dedicated presence in Rangely to cover those town, county and board meetings would be ideal, and I agree that it would be best if it’s someone actually present in the room just for that purpose. That’s the reason we’ve been running a classified help wanted ad in the Herald Times for most of 2016, seeking a Rangely reporter. We’ve had no response thus far that I’m aware of.
    I’m pretty sure it’s every editor’s bedtime prayer and morning pipe dream to be able to hire part-time or full-time reporters, and it’s on my wish list as well. I’d like to have a news correspondent and a sports reporter for both ends of the county. Unfortunately, being able to hire additional staff (I’m currently the only full-timer we have), is dependent entirely on increased advertising revenue. That requires the cooperation of other local business owners like yourself. That, in turn, is dependent upon the small business owners feeling that the paper is serving their community and reaching their customers. Which, in turn, requires someone covering those important town and county meetings, attending events, and writing articles. It’s kind of catch-22.
    As to the pay for freelance reporters (AKA stringers): No one will ever make a decent living wage as a freelance reporter for a small county newspaper. But a dedicated stringer, covering a couple of meetings a week and writing a feature article or two, can make about $15 a hour, if he or she is a reasonably speedy scribe. Our stringers get paid by the inch, and our rate is comparable to the much larger papers (all corporately owned) in our surrounding communities. Depending on how much said stringer wants to work and how much news is actually going on, it can add up pretty quickly. I know, I did it for about 10 years as a homeschooling mom who lived out of town. It’s a great side job for a stay-at-home mom or an empty-nester or a retiree or someone who attends all those meetings anyway just because they’re involved and invested in their community. It’s not high on the pay scale, but it’s not terrible considering the average wage of the average store clerk or office helper in our area.
    As to Heather and Jen. Both are great. I spoke with Heather during Septemberfest and learned she is working at the college again. I am not aware that she “quit” or that she was poorly treated as a freelancer. If that’s the case, that’s unfortunate, because she’s a good writer. Jen and I have yet to meet in person, but I appreciate her willingness to work and her ability to write. Most people are too scared of what people will think or say about them to put themselves out there in print under a byline. It takes a brave soul to be a reporter, because mistakes will be made. Every. Single. Week. Why? Because we’re human. Because we’re biased no matter how hard we try to be neutral. Because we work under the pressure of a deadline every week. Because people don’t return our calls our emails to clarify things. Mistakes happen, and I hate it, but it is what it is. (The editor’s other pipe dream is to put out a perfect paper, just once!)
    In summary, yes, we’d like to “create a decently-paid position” for someone who lives in Rangely. Doing so will require the cooperation of the townspeople and business owners in Rangely to support and sustain their own correspondent through increased advertising revenue, increased subscriptions and single-copy sales. In the meantime, we’re dependent on our stringers, and invested citizens like yourself to let us know what’s going on, get announcements and news briefs and story tips to us, or to be willing to do some freelance work on the side.
    I hope that answers your questions. Thanks for your input!

  3. Hi Niki,
    Thanks for your response. I only just saw it, as I thought to check if anyone else had commented- I didn’t get notified of a response, so sorry for the delay. Trust me, as a business owner, I understand all of what you say and understand the challenges! What I have learned, is that our community and economic climate are unique, we can’t do things the way they work in other areas, although it often seems like we should. Sometimes you have to switch up the model. It really is a ‘catch 22’ as you say, I think Rangely would support the paper more if there was better, more consistent representation, which you won’t get with your current approach to covering Rangely, which you can’t do until you have more support…and so on. Oye! As a business owner, however, I know you won’t get the sales till you provide the service, or the product, people want…. Believe me though, I get it, ‘shop local’ and supporting local resources is not particularly embedded into our local culture. The ‘stringer’ approach takes finding that ‘right person’ who can go to everything and then write about it, and make it worth their time, as you say. Unfortunately, as time has told, that person just isn’t here, though I’m so very grateful for Heather and Jen and those that have taken it on for a time! . I wish you the very best with the paper and the paper huge success, I buy the paper every week and enjoy reading it!! I love it’s history and heritage. I hope to meet you at some point- let me know next time you are in Rangely. 🙂

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