By Tim Whyte
Sam Malone: There are three types of women I don’t get involved with: married, underage or comatose.
Norm Peterson (to Cliff Clavin): He’s added one!
I was reminded of this exchange from my all-time favorite sitcom, “Cheers,” the other day when I was contemplating an explanation of my approach to editing The Signal’s opinion pages.
It goes something like this:
There are four kinds of submissions I won’t run: potentially libelous, in poor taste, known plagiarism and incoherent ramblings.
Some of you who remember me from my first tour of duty at The Signal (1989-2007) might be inclined to say, like Norm:
“He’s added one.”
The upshot is, we strive to run just about every opinion submission we get, so long as it’s local. You should notice that we run letters and commentaries from all walks of politics, including those that criticize us.
Sometimes, maybe, we even let the crazies get a little too crazy.
But, occasionally we will say no. I remember a conversation I had with a reader in the late-1990s. She submitted a letter to the editor and I declined to run it. I forget the reason, but it was one of those listed above. I explained my decision to her when she called to ask why her letter wasn’t running.
“But,” she argued, “you’re violating my First Amendment rights!”
“No,” I countered. “I’m exercising mine.”
Well, technically I was exercising the paper’s rights. But you get the point. The First Amendment guarantees the right to freely publish material without prior restraint from the government. It doesn’t require anyone to publish anyone else’s material.
Of course, the game has changed since the ’90s. Anyone with a social media account or a blog can reach audiences of thousands, at minimal expense. But a community newspaper remains as a valuable gathering place of ideas and opinions.
Even some ideas and opinions that you may find abhorrent.
I bring this up now because we have an election coming up in November and, whether you are on the left or the right (or, in the forgotten middle), I can pretty much guarantee that you will find SOMETHING on our opinion pages between now and then that you will find abhorrent.
That’s OK. Take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine and write a response.
We will have just a few ground rules. Blatantly personal attacks will not be allowed. Plus, the other stuff I mentioned above.
I’m not super picky about word counts, but if you ramble, we reserve the right to edit for length. Shorter letters usually get published sooner. If you keep it under 500 words you should be in pretty good shape. Guest columns get to stretch their legs a bit more — say, 750 words.
Also, we will announce a submission deadline — probably sometime a couple weeks before the election — after which election-related letters and columns will not be guaranteed to run. After all, we need some lead time to allow all that extra space. Don’t expect to turn in a letter on Nov. 3 and have it run before the election. Won’t happen.
AND THIS: Election letters under our regime are free. You might think this is a given, but apparently some genius on a former management team of The Signal decided in 2012 to start charging 10 cents a word for election endorsement letters. You know, like a classified ad:
GARAGE SALE: Everything must go! Household goods, old TV (black & white, no remote), recliner in good shape except for minor rodent damage, assorted 8-track tapes and an oil painting of dogs playing poker. Vote for Ken Dean!
If you submitted a 500-word letter, it would cost you 50 bucks. Yep. In 2012 The Signal’s then-owner took the “free” right out of “free speech.”
We won’t do that here. Not on our watch. Keep writing. We’ll keep publishing. No charge.
A few other newspapering housekeeping items:
DID YOU KNOW…
I had a conversation with a big-city reporter who was in town a couple weeks ago and she had assumed that all of our columnists and community contributors were paid staff members. She visited the office and wanted to see where all their desks were.
Community newspapers rely a great deal on the community. You know all those rotating Republican and Democrat columnists who contribute to the opinion pages? Nope. Not paid. They all have day jobs.
We appreciate them all — Republicans, Democrats and the inbetweeners — for contributing just for the love of it.
Likewise with some of our other contributors who make some of our specialty pages possible, everything from “Our Community” to the advice columns on topics like business, home improvement and more.
We don’t thank them enough — and it bears pointing out to readers that a great many of them are volunteers, not employees.
OUR APPROACH TO REPORTING
Since I arrived back at the paper in June, I have had no fewer than two public information officers for local public agencies “tell” me how it’s going to work: All communications must flow through them because that’s how they’re set up.
To reiterate what I told them both: That’s not how WE are set up. Our reporters are instructed to call the most appropriate sources for each story. If that’s the PIO, fine. But if it’s someone else who fills a specific role at a public agency and is clearly the right person to talk to, that’s who we will call.
And, if the appropriate person declines comment, or tells us that they can’t talk because they’re instructed that all comments must flow through the PIO, that is their prerogative. No one HAS to talk to us and we know that.
But when they refuse to talk to us, or are made unavailable, you can bet your patootie we will say so.
It’s all about transparency. Or, at least, our pursuit of it.
I’m not going to light this person up by name publicly, but one of those aforementioned unpaid contributors was guilty of plagiarism before Richard Budman bought the paper and before I returned in June.
We became concerned about it when we heard about it on social media. It had to do with copying-and-pasting background info from the internet. I have, as a result, discussed it with the unpaid contributor. I am confident that this person understands it is wrong and that we will not tolerate that sort of thing, and that the next time will be the last time.
Since the original offense did not happen on my watch, and it was discussed internally at that time by the previous management team, we are going to abide by that, but remain vigilant. Under our watch: Zero tolerance for plagiarism.
I think Norm Peterson would be pleased.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @TimWhyte.