Should a news publisher be a cheerleader for the local community?
This month, San Diego businessman Doug Manchester bought the Union-Tribune newspaper from a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm.
“We’d like to be a cheerleader for all that’s good about San Diego,” incoming Union-Tribune president and CEO John Lynch told VoiceofSanDiego.org. “Our motivation, both of us, was to do something good for San Diego.”
Lynch’s boss, Manchester, is politically active – he’s a Mitt Romney donor and gave more than $100,000 to support Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative in California that’s now being reviewed by the courts. So when the new management crew says it wants to be “pro-business,” as Lynch told VoiceofSanDiego, I don’t think it unreasonable to read that phrase – “pro-business” – as conservative “code” for advocating against government regulation and against anything, including unfavorable news stories, that could impede deals from getting done. Even if those deals hurt others in the community.
I’m not afraid to say that I’m “pro-business,” too. But I’m an entrepreneur, not a conservative ideologue. I want my business, and other businesses in my community, to succeed – not just in the short term, but long into the future, as well. When I say I’m “pro-business,” I suspect that I mean something very different from what Manchester and Lynch imply.
As any experienced manager ought to know, securing the long-term success of a business requires navigating some unpleasant moments along the way. Ignoring those challenges rarely helps the business. Typically, failing to address problems only makes their impact more damaging in the long term.
How pro-business did it turn out to be, really, for so many newspapers to run “cheerleading” stories about home sales and new financing deals during the real estate bubble of the 2000s? Don’t feed me a line about how nobody knew what was going on. Some analysts and commentators knew the nation’s financial system was inflating a bubble years before things started to pop in 2007. Perhaps the economy wouldn’t be wallowing in the mess we’re in today if more reporters had chosen instead to listen to those voices and do the extra work to report what turned out to be the truth about proliferate, no-standards lending pumping housing prices far beyond what a real market could sustain. Perhaps the real “pro-business” approach would have been for journalists to report the skepticism that the public needed to avoid making what turned out to be catastrophic decisions for the nation’s economy.
It’s not anti-business to expose con artists or to tell the public the truth about bad deals. It’s far more anti-business to stand back and allow the public to be swindled, making it more likely that people keep their money to themselves in the future, rather than taking the risk of being conned again.
But before I fire you up to go report another round of muckracking stories, let’s listen a little more closely to what Lynch and Manchester had to say. Because I do think that they have a point we need to consider.
A successful news publication in the 21st century must serve as a strong advocate for the community it covers. How would you like to work for a boss who only talked with you when he or she was calling you into for a reprimand? How would you like if you never heard a word from superiors when you did well, but only when someone upstairs thought that they could nail you for an error? How demoralizing would your professional life be then?
No one would want to work that environment. So let’s not be ignorant of the environment that we’re creating in our communities with our news coverage.
The irony here is that I truly believe most journalists are optimists, at heart. We wouldn’t have chosen this field, with its traditionally lousy pay and long work hours, if we didn’t think that our work could help make our communities better. But our optimism too often leads us to present overly negative coverage.
We think that the good in a community isn’t newsworthy because we think that good things happening in a community is the ordinary – the way things are supposed to be. And we think that a journalist’s job is to report that which is out of the ordinary. But when all we report is the bad, never taking note of the good, we paint an inaccurate portrait of our communities – one that’s hard to look at and makes our readers feel the way that picked-upon employee must feel.
So advocating for our communities requires not just exposing the dangers that confront us, but inspiring our readers with stories and notes about successes, as well. And not just the big ones. Show some love to the careful front-yard gardeners, the essay contest winners, the after-school volunteers. Credit the government employee who fined a dirty restaurant, as well as the entrepreneur who created a new job in a depressed part of town. Never consider yourself a lesser journalist because you take the time to find encouraging stories about good people in your community.
Like a manager trying to improve a workplace, never forget to inspire your community even as you seek and honestly confront the challenges which face it. That’s what “doing something good” for your community really requires.