Price of free speech

My column in The Weekly last week offended some Hilltop Condo owners. I had chastised the senior citizens who made multiple pleas to council to retain two rogue parking spaces residents had created in a driveway curb cut on W. Barbee Chapel Road so they wouldn’t have to drive two-tenths of a mile to the parking lot behind their building. The issue caused confusion for three council members who ended up voting against the Hultquist IP office building proposal that they were in favor of, thinking they were voting against removing the rogue parking spaces.

In my column, I chided the people who said the two parking spaces meant a lot to Hilltop residents, even though only two of them would be able to park there. I also took Penny Rich’s comment at face value that many of the Hilltop residents were senior citizens, her point being that they would walk slowly and put themselves and drivers at greater risk by jaywalking. One letter writer correct that impression, saying that only a third of Hilltop residents are retired, something that neither Rich nor I would be able to “check,” as one letter writer suggested we do.

As people do when their feelings are hurt, they lashed out with words designed to hurt back. The Weekly’s publisher, Dan Shannon bolded the insults, so you won’t have to read the whole letters. You can just glance at the juicy parts.

For the record, I am not against free speech, as one letter writer charged – witness this blog. I do have little patience for people who believe that saving two otherwise fortunate individuals the inconvenience of driving an extra two-tenths of a mile to a parking space directly outside their door is worth the risk they pose to themselves and drivers who might hit them. The driveway cut also interrupts the sidewalk, but parking space supporters weren’t concerned about that.

Council does sometimes too good of a job making concessions to special interest groups. In this instance, I was pleased to see that council gave precedence to the safety of the potential jaywalkers, especially given that the jaywalkers, however quickly they move, didn’t see the danger for themselves.

If you’re not on a postal route that delivers The Weekly to your mailbox (I’m not, and neither are some council members), pick up a copy wherever free publications are distributed. It’s an interesting read.
– Nancy Oates

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11 Comments

  1. DOM

     /  March 16, 2012

    I’d love to see The Weekly go online – is that a possibility?

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  March 16, 2012

    I’m just guessing here, but I think Dan recognizes that publications that give content away for free don’t have a very sustainable business model. So I wouldn’t hold my breath, if I were you.

  3. DOM

     /  March 17, 2012

    Hmm, I wonder whatever happened to the Internet…

  4. As soon as Apple approves our app — it takes up to four weeks I’m told — readers will be able to read both the magazine and The WEEKLY on their iPads. As for putting the content online, I don’t see the benefit to our advertisers, our readers or our business. We do put some content online, and our Web sites do contain aggregated local news, original content, smart blogs and so on. Right now, each week we mail 5,000 copies free, distribute 3,000 copies free (our Web site lists the 100+ distribution points) and sell subscriptions.

  5. Don Evans

     /  March 17, 2012

    Dan

    I’m not sure I understand your purpose in bold facing selected comments in the letters to the editor. Whether you support the comments by the writers or not, stepping in and highlighting certain phrases does a disservice to everyone. It may emphasize sections of the letter that the writer did not mean to stress.

    I also don’t understand why you would show such a lack of editorial support for the writer of the column. Usually a publisher stands up for his writers or maintains a neutral ground to let a discussion run its course. As an editor, I always stood by my writers,especially when they were criticized by readers. That made for a more trusting and professional environment. Undercutting your own writers sends a confusing message to the community. Even though you may believe a public flogging was in order, I believe the correct approach is to take the writer aside and discuss the issue.

    A publisher has a responsibility to his community and to his staff. He allows discussions to help readers explore a topic, and he supports his writers to let them know he has their back in any dispute because ultimately he relies on them to fill his pages with good journalism, not the readers. I’m not seeing that support in this incident, and that is a shame.

  6. Dan Shannon

     /  March 17, 2012

    Don,
    Good and interesting points, but . . .

    Boldfacing type, as you can see in every story throughout The WEEKLY, is just a neat design element. (One of the things I personally hate about newspapers is the unending column upon column of grey type; I look at most newspapers and wince.) Boldface, short articles, to-the-point sentences, “BACKSTORY” insertions, ‘local, local, local’ topics . . . all those things and more are personal and subjective decisions I made when I started the paper. In the aggregate they are all designed to bring attention to aspects of the stories we publish, not to emphasize the wrong points. Obviously we try to boldface the sections — usually names but often key words — that give the reader a quick idea of the story. I disagree that “highlighting certain phrases does a disservice to everyone” — on the contrary, presenting stories, highlighting different points, it’s what we do. In this case, the boldfaced words were precisely what the letter writers wanted stressed.

    We are trying to create something new here, at the risk of sounding pretentious. Newspapers’ default position is, and has always been, their writers are correct and their readers/subjects are wrong. Really? I don’t buy it. Ask anyone who has been written about or quoted by a reporter, or knows a lot about a particular incident or subject that was written up in a newspaper, and in the vast majority of the cases you’ll find that they are usually surprised at how many errors a newspaper article contains. I know this from personal experience and from both sides of the typewriter, as it were.

    So your point that an editor should stand by his/her writer, particularly when challenged by readers, falls flat to me. My take is that readers — our neighbors — usually have a case when they take the time to complain. And the newspaper has a greater debt to the community than to itself so it should — must — give the aggrieved a chance to set the record straight, or, in this case, cry foul for perceived personal attacks. I agree with your point that my approach (“Undercutting my writers” is the way you put it, but I don’t see it that way) sends a confusing message to my readers — they sure aren’t used to the media being humble or accepting responsibility. If I have anything to say about it, they’ll get used to it. That’s why we put our “CORRECTIONS” box at the top of page 1, in bright red. We’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to own them. This will foster “a more trusting and professional environment,” not supporting the writer (actually it’s the paper that is being judged and criticized; the writer is usually just a bit player, though they understandably feel otherwise) blindly. It will make the writers better. And, if pressed, I will probably err on the side of the readers.

    Print is such a powerful medium we can hurt people’s feelings and do real and lasting damage as much by accident as by design. And the balance of power is so out of whack: when do readers ever get the last word? I have promised to tread carefully when we write about our friends and neighbors. I doubt we’ll get it exactly right every time, but in this case, I think Nancy went too far in her off-handed characterizations of the petitioners and I sent her the letters beforehand asking for her response. As I wrote in the paper, she disagrees with the readers’ complaints but I don’t. Fair enough.

    Newspapers traditionally are arrogant and adversarial. Even now, even when they are in such decline, they still view their position as unassailable, their commentary as wisdom of the highest order. I rarely, almost never, hear anyone say anything good about traditional newspapers. Their advertisers resent them and readers are abandoning them by the millions. And newspaper employees — past and present — generally loathe the whole institution. I’ve interviewed scores of them. I say this as a once and present newspaperman: I think the emperor is wearing boxers.

    We’re paying attention. If a neighborhood newspaper is going to serve its neighbors, it can use a healthy dose of fairness and humility. If I’m drawing the wrong lessons from history, so be it, but I don’t think I am.

    All that said, I probably owe Nancy an apology. If I had done my job well I would have excised the offending (to me) remarks prior to publishing. We’ve published six issues and we’re getting better each time. But I am responsible for the newspaper, not Nancy. As it happens, she’s doing a great job.

    I’ve gone on too long but there is so much more to say about our plans and our principles. I’m confident The WEEKLY will develop outside many of the the rigid, unfair, silly rules of journalism (no apologies), and will — or won’t; we’ll see — find a congenial place in the community it serves.

  7. Don Evans

     /  March 17, 2012

    Only a few points I see worth addressing to in this “humble” and egregiously self-serving response.

    When did you decide Nancy went too far — when you read the copy before it went to print or when the complaints started coming in? Responding to your readers is one thing; it’s quite another to wait until you see which way the wind blows to determine your stance. And it certainly isn’t good leadership to print a column and then decide you don’t like it because you get a few critical comments. That undermines the credibility of your paper.

    Second, I have no problem with bold facing type in your Weekly generated copy. It’s when you choose to bold face someone else’s text that I have a problem — you deciding what is to be emphasized rather than the person who wrote it. Calling that “serving the community” is a bit shortsighted.

    And I never said a paper’s writers are always correct. Lord knows I’ve seen plenty of staff-written copy that was not correct. That’s when the editor takes the writer aside and discusses how to make things better. That’s a private discussion that ultimately should benefit everyone without humiliating anyone.

    And letters to the editor are one way to find out that a mistake has been made, but not all letters are based on the facts or are written without bias. That’s why we run them as is, not by adding emphasis.

  8. DOM

     /  March 17, 2012

    Mr. Shannon:

    “I look at most newspapers and wince.”

    The same reason I look at most newspapers and DON’T wince – because they maintain objectivity. Good luck with your new approach.

  9. I was referring to their bland, grey look and overly long articles, not their content, as you know. So spare me your clever remarks.

    The writers and reporters that work at our company have worked at the best newspapers and magazines in North Carolina, and they are committed to excellence in all their endeavors, and many informed folks greatly admire their efforts. It might be worthwhile to note that not one journalist has left our company because of tension or disputes over objectivity, which is a myth anyway. Our writers and reporters are having a great time experimenting with new ways of telling and presenting stories to their neighbors, and there is not a chance that they would compromise their integrity. They are telling true stories brilliantly. I applaud their efforts and am proud to be associated with them.

    See, this talking about what we’re trying to do is so futile. But I always think that I can make a civil point without someone needing to take a shot. I need to just be quiet, as I am 99% of the time, and let the publications speak for themselves. I’ve got a newspaper to publish. Our experiment in journalism continues.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  March 19, 2012

    I don’t receive the mailed version of The Weekly and don’t have an iPAD and don’t believe in picking up print papers so I will probably never read The Weekly and I haven’t seen the issue with the bold face type. However, I can say that decades of usability studies have shown that the readers eye is automatically drawn to font changes and to captions. If you want to get a message out, you should always have a well-written caption and subheads and font changes within the text can highlight a particular message. So if the bold face highlights all negative/critical words, then that’s the overall message most readers will pick up. in other words, font changes assume meaning for the average reader–they do much more than change the visual landscape of a page.

    Don–please note that neither you or Nancy have ever stepped in to support guest columnists here on CHW.

  11. Nancy Oates

     /  March 19, 2012

    In my own defense, I did defend Deborah Fulgheri’s column. I don’t usually weigh in on people’s comments, because they do an excellent job of expressing their opinions themselves.

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