By Mike Whittlesey
The following column is written in response to a letter to the editor from Justin Murphy. Read the letter here.
In a world where social media makes it easy to voice personal opinions in a public forum, signing one’s name to a letter to the editor takes conviction. Mr. Murphy should be commended for his fortitude.
As the Editor in Chief, I am ultimately responsible for everything that appears in the print, online and digital editions of The Progress Review. When we purchased La Porte City’s newspaper in 2002, we made a commitment to the community to continue producing a weekly newspaper that dates back to the 1870s.
As Mr. Murphy noted, readers looking for scandals are not likely to find them in the pages of The Progress Review. If publishing the “negative happenings” in our community was a priority, it would be worth my time to investigate rumors circulating around town. But it is not. There are several reasons why.
Every printed page in The Progress Review comes with a cost. That is why, on average, 40% of the content we publish each week is devoted to advertising. Advertisers make it possible to keep the subscription price our readers pay lower than many other weekly newspapers in the state. Consequently, my job as editor is to publish the news and feature stories I believe our readers will find informative and meaningful, given the limited space available.
While I have certainly heard a number of rumors circulating around town during my tenure at The Progress Review, I must admit that I definitely do not make an effort to “keep up-to-date with rumors spreading around like wild fires.” At The Progress Review, before any article gets investigated or written, a simple question helps determine its worthiness for publication: What is the value of the story?
In the case of the suspension of Union High School football players, it is their status as juveniles that helps keep their names from being made public in this newspaper. In many cases, law enforcement officials and school district administrators are not obligated to release the names of juveniles to the media, out of deference to their juvenile status. Investigating such rumors is a moot point if the names of the students in question are not willingly made available to the media.
In response to other examples cited in Mr. Murphy’s letter, what value does a “town alcoholic” story have to offer the community? How about an “abusive husband” story? What is the merit to publishing a story about an alleged “student-teacher scandal”? In each of these examples, no investigation conducted by The Progress Review is likely to advance the story beyond its rumor status. Publishing unsubstantiated rumors is akin to action “that is defamatory or that maliciously or damagingly misrepresents.” In other words, libel. Our readers deserve better than that. That is also why the names of specific individuals referenced in Mr. Murphy’s letter were redacted prior to publication.
Over the past 14 years, there are numerous reports of “negative happenings” to be found in the pages of The Progress Review. The police reports and law enforcement press releases we do publish have what the aforementioned “scandals” lack- an event that takes place resulting in the accused being formally charged with a crime. It is not The Progress Review’s job to report accusations based on rumor or innuendo. Would such stories sell more papers? Perhaps. We choose to leave investigations of possible misdeeds to the agencies who are far better equipped to conduct them properly.
In 2016, the number of family-owned newspapers in the United States continues to decline. As publishers of La Porte City’s hometown newspaper, we are afforded the opportunity to share the stories about the people and events in our community like no other media outlet. It’s a responsibility we take very seriously, the reason we continue to look for ways to improve our community, not tear it down. It’s also the reason why, after 14 years, The Progress Review’s commitment to our home town remains as strong as ever. –MW