We played well in Peoria. Thank goodness. Snaps from your peers always mean a lot. And winning big (see our Page 6 story) at an Illinois Press Association awards show is a much-appreciated morale boost – particularly in challenging times like these.
We won the same giant trophy last year, for “best big weekly in the state,” patted ourselves on the back and returned to work. That means sweating decisions big and small.
“We’re very sincere. We’re very imperfect,” says Dan Haley, our boss as editor and publisher of Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, and president of the independent newspaper group that includes three suburban community weeklies and three in Chicago. We want to tell our readers everything they need to know to the best of our abilities.
“But we’re always going to be asking: Where’s the line? Where’s the responsible point to draw that line? How do you make that judgment” when you’re writing about your neighbors?
As grown-ups in the news-gathering business, we’re always thinking: “We’d like to understand this better. We need to make one more call.”
I worried, even before we tightened up the staff, that we couldn’t always make that next, potentially critical, call. Now, for all of our caring about what we do, we’re likely in every issue to have missteps: some errors of fact, some errors of tone or emphasis, some errors in grammar and word usage, some errors of omission. I wince at every error on my watch.
Omissions of context are a particular peeve. So for the big win story, at least, I’m thankful to have not only some background and perspective to deliver, but also a few answers to what I hear from critics and cheerleaders alike: How do you put a paper together? What are the calls you make? How do you make them?
Here’s a glimpse at a few of our toughies.
Reporting on, and defining, public suicide
Since December, we’ve reported in Wednesday Journal on two public suicides. The lesson from the first report, which we’ve covered in an editorial, is that we need to edit further than industry standards call for. In our report mid-August of an Oak Parker’s suicide one afternoon in a forest preserve in Maywood, we held back – even from staff members – some details we had confirmed. The three of us handling this story – Dan, the reporter, and I – kept weighing what we learned against the spirit of the public’s right to know. We chose to give members of the community details about the man’s life rather than feed into speculation about his death.
Had we gone solely by an industry standard – answer what people are wondering about if you have confirmed detail for the buzz – we would have reported all that we had confirmed and also reported on what social media networks are defining as a new version of “public suicide.” In the case of another death – the private suicide of a young student that became a public matter in friends’ and siblings’ posts on Twitter and Facebook – we chose, after discussion across the newsroom, to publish nothing. We deemed it best to define “public suicide” strictly, concluding that with the reach of these social networks, the people who needed to know about the loss of a community member already knew.
Where does gossip end and news begin
Steering clear of being The New York Post was top of mind most of last year for Bob Uphues, a former sports and real estate editor for Wednesday Journal who’s now editor of another of our suburban weeklies, the Riverside Brookfield Landmark. What’s personally eating at a public figure and the public’s right to know about the potential harm of such angst became a matter of concern for Bob in coverage of high school District 208. His contacts throughout Riverside were telling him that the district superintendent, and principal of Riverside Brookfield High School, was having a relatively public affair with a staff member. The man is married and, at the time, had a child at the school. Then Bob heard this same information from his schools reporter in Riverside. The veteran reporter, who has a law degree and has worked in family court, worried that the Landmark’s credibility would be at stake if we didn’t immediately report on a matter that was becoming a growing concern among parents: the superintendent-principal’s professional judgment.
Calling a conference with Dan and me in hopes that we’d override Bob’s decision to hold off on such a story, the reporter made a case that we were looking at more than gossip. He pushed to report that there was an affair, to name the faculty member, and to quote concerns school board members and parents had about the principal’s judgment. After listening to a tape of an interview with the principal, we all had few doubts that the head of the school was seeing a colleague off campus. But Dan and I backed Bob’s decision to break news of the affair only when there was clear evidence or public acknowledgment that it affected how a person runs a public high school.
That week, initially in an online report, we published that after a school board meeting went into executive session, the principal was questioned about an affair and told a board committee would convene to assess its possible impact on school operations. We did not then, nor since, name the staff member. We discussed identifying her by department but decided otherwise because of the relatively small size of the department.
Where to draw the line in illustrations
Storytelling, certainly, involves more than words. Decision-making about illustrations, which make for much quicker identification of a person, packs a lot of soul searching. Last year, news of a woman in Forest Park being beat up in an alley as she was taking her trash out one Saturday afternoon made not only our paper eventually, but initially the crime blotters of Chicago’s dailies. Both the Tribune and the Sun-Times named this woman. She at first hesitated to have our editor and photographer visit, but then said she was fine with being named – and photographed – in the town paper; she wanted, she said, to go all-out in letting neighbors know what crime risks they were up against.
A Wednesday Journal employee in a department other than the newsroom, who was a victim of such a crime herself years ago, heard that a photographer was assigned to the story. This woman brought her concerns to newsroom managers, asking we reconsider running any photos. Her point was that a name is one thing, a picture of a person’s face is quite another, and that a crime victim still in shock needs to be protected from the best of their intentions. After a discussion, we still sent a photographer, but he took no shots of the woman’s face. Though we did name the woman in our story, the only shots our photographer filed were of her injuries.
For the Coming Out special section that we published last week, we were surprised to learn during the interview process that the transgender man we knew because of his plain talk and openness was, in fact, not out at work. Giving him a pseudonym solved only one concern. Our challenge then became how to picture someone’s personhood in a local, universal and honest (not staged) way. Our photographer and I had several conversations about what can be done to cover a person’s identity in a photo, and we ended up nixing each scenario.
A shot of clasped hands wouldn’t be specific enough and, if any wrist jewelry were usually worn, might out the person; asking him to remove wrist jewelry wouldn’t make for an honest shot. Another thought was a silhouette of this man walking his dogs in a familiar setting – that would show he’s like anyone else in town, but not be close enough for any ID. Two problems with this thought: to capture such a shot for a man now living in a nearby community, we’d either be dishonest in asking him to bring his dogs for a walk in a local neighborhood or we’d be showing an unfamiliar neighborhood and a scene that could out him.
We opted to show transgender people in pop culture while clarifying in the story why we couldn’t picture the local person we’d talked to. The illustration we did run with the story – the man’s doodle of a transgender symbol – was an unexpected outcome of a follow-up interview. The day we published this section, he texted: “The doodle was an inspired bit of humanity – nicely done.”
When and how to use the f-word
In basing our decision-making on what we know of our readers in each community we cover, we have no problem, on rare occasions, spelling out the f-word in the crime reports of two of our city papers – Chicago Journal and Skyline. There, we know our readers to be mostly adults. For our family-friendly suburban papers, we seldom quote conversation listed in police reports and, when we do, we sanitize language with all the dashes we can find.
Having learned of this geographic-based practice on my arrival here a year and a half ago, I at one point – and right on deadline – extrapolated and pulled a front-page headline using the word “snafu.” Going through my spiel about the old military acronym, I learned that Dan, as sharp a student of language as anyone a wordie like me knows, had written the headline. “Are you kidding?” a page designer said, “that’s one of our favorite words here.” Dutiful to what I’d learned about this term in national editing conferences five and six years ago, I asked everyone around to pitch in and come up with a headline that didn’t use it. Dan, always the professional, let me do my job. We ran a cleaned-up headline.
But from the second we sent the page to press, I worried it was also a watered-down headline. Through all the brainstorming, I started to see the shades of meaning that “snafu” had over “mix-up.” In what’s been the longest post-mortem I can recall here, an almost weeklong e-mail thread led by perturbed reporter Bill Dwyer pointed out that The New York Times, The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor are now using this word in stories and in headlines.
I wound up learning the same thing once I checked back in with other members of the American Copy Editors Society who in 2003 and 2004 had gotten the caution I had from the desk chiefs of these very papers: Times change; so do sensitivities in language. From the Bible belt that is Texas, one writing coach wrote back, “Helen, we now think of it as ‘situation normal all fouled up.’ ”
When you can’t afford Joan Crawford
It’s frustrating, given so many demands for precision in what seems ever-lessening time to address them, for all of us gatekeepers at the Journal to pick up the paper on a Wednesday morning and see errors we each know we’d caught at one point in the editing process. Some errors, I’ve learned, creep back into print when an editor or reporter looking at a page proof near deadline makes a change believing that that point had been overlooked.
At the center of the industry standard for a check-and-balance system in such cases is a resource that many community newspapers can’t afford: a pagination-ready version of word-processing software that has a notes mode. In such software, the licensing for which metropolitan dailies and a few other specialty publications can absorb, there’s a hidden layer in the text that lets you enter such notes as “May look weird, but we’ve been misspelling this name all along. Quadruple-checked and it’s right now. HK” An old colleague at another paper used to call this the Joan Crawford function: “Don’t – – – – with me, fellas.” With such notice in a text file, a page designer – the staff member usually asked to make such last-minute changes – can check the file and know whether there was already a call made. At Wednesday Journal Inc., we have such software only for Chicago Parent.
Want more looks inside our world?
We’ve got many examples of what we face in being respectful members of the community. If this is at all helpful in understanding us, let us know. We’re happy to share more.