Monthly Archives: October 2006

Reflections on five years as editor

Here’s my upcoming Sunday column reflecting on five years as editor. A big trend I’ve seen will be no surprise to readers of this blog — newspapers attempting to build credibility through greater transparency and interactivity. Has it worked?
This week marks my fifth anniversary of becoming editor of the News Sentinel.
My predecessor, Harry Moskos, made Halloween his last day on the job (the significance of which I’m still pondering), and I officially took the reins on Nov. 1, 2001.
Looking back, I have to say I’ve had a lot of help — from you, the readers.
It was my good fortune to come into this job just about the time that “transparency” and “interactivity” became buzzwords in American journalism.
In fact, the earliest article mentioning “transparency” in this context appeared on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a center for the professional development of journalists, on Oct. 15, 2001, about when I was packing.
Three months later, a piece entitled “Interactivity and Transparency” took a broad look at the issue.
Martha Stone, a Poynter fellow, argued that the media’s credibility had suffered because journalists were too aloof, working in isolation to produce one-way communication.
“Few news media companies help the public understand how a news organization operates and makes decisions,” she wrote. “Not many of them go beyond letters to the editor for interaction.”
Times have changed. Like most newspapers, the News Sentinel has tried in a variety of ways to be more open and to invite reader involvement.
This year, for instance, we recorded all of our editorial board interviews with candidates and posted them as podcasts on I launched a blog, called The Upfront Page, where I try to address issues about how the newspaper operates. We often post online the documents and other materials we gather for important stories, so readers can evaluate them for themselves.
Interaction goes far beyond letters to the editor now. Each day, the printed edition includes a Readers Corner comment on the newspaper and a sample of reaction to the previous day’s editorial.
Our Internet edition overflows with reader input on blogs, forums, polls and, a site created for citizen journalism.
All in all, we publish hundreds of submissions from readers every day, and with every bylined story carrying an e-mail address and phone number, we get lots of feedback we don’t publish.
So, has our credibility improved? Are we more trusted? I’m not sure.
Being human, we still make mistakes, of course, and now our warts are widely inspected and discussed. Sometimes, I fear, the criticism feeds on itself, and in the anonymous world of the Web, an electronic mob mentality sets in. Bashing becomes a pastime.
But at the same time, the feedback helps those of us who write and edit the News Sentinel learn to do a better job, and I trust that many of you who read the paper appreciate the dialog, as well.

Same-sex union announcement

Sometimes it’s tough to guess what will trigger controversy.
I underestimated the outcry our “Sweet 15” story would elicit. Then I overestimated the reaction to our publishing, for the first time, a same-sex union annoucement on our Sunday Milestones page. We received scarcely a comment.
For decades we have published announcements of engagements, weddings and anniversaries. But a few weeks ago, for the first time, a couple submitted an annoucement of their union ceremony, held at an Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
Value judgments or religious arguments aside, critics might have complained that because same-sex marriages are illegal in Tennessee, we should not have accepted the annoucement. We considered, though, that the page is not designed to record legal proceedings. We don’t require couples to show their marriage licenses, and engagements, after all, have no legal status.
We decided it would be discriminatory, and wrong, to exclude an event that a gay couple considered a milestone. In any event, we received only one or two complaints.

Any bets on endorsements?

The Editorial Board wrapped up its interviews today and decided on its endorsements in the general election. The editorials will begin Sunday and run for about a week.
Any predictions?
BTW, y’all have worn me out from the past two weeks of blogging. I’ll be on vacation for a week.
Thanks, again, for the vigorous and readable commentary.

Protesting Hooker’s suspension

Here’s a copy of the letter the News Sentinel sent today to UT athletic director Mike Hamilton protesting the university’s suspension of Dave Hooker’s credentials:
Dear Mike:
We are deeply disappointed in the action taken against a News Sentinel representative by the university this week, and we strongly protest the suspension of the credentials of our reporter, Dave Hooker.
UT fans and News Sentinel readers were concerned and highly interested in Inky Johnson’s recovery from an injury sustained in the Air Force game. Dave Hooker’s story was newsworthy and met that reader need. Dave’s interview with Inky at the worst was merely a technical infringement of the University of Tennessee’s media rules that demand that arrangements for player contacts be made through the UT Sports Information Office. Therefore, we consider UT’s subsequent actions to be unfair and discriminatory for the following reasons:
* UT contends that the interview was the result of a campus “ambush” of the player, Inky Johnson. In fact, the interview took place with Johnson’s full cooperation and was arranged by an intermediary employed by the UT Athletics Department. This is corroborated by reporter Drew Edwards, who was present at the time of the supposed “ambush,” and by Hooker’s tape-recording of the interview, which makes clear its circumstances and which has been provided to the university for review. To describe Hooker’s behavior in this regard as “underhanded and dishonest” is disingenuous of the university, to say the least.
* Hooker has been singled out for punishment when, in truth, it has been common practice for reporters to interview players without first making arrangements through the Sports Information Office. A recent example is the Aug. 18, 2006, story in the Tennessean by Chris Low in which he quotes player Jim Bob Cooter at length following a court appearance. Low was not in attendance at court, so it is clear he obtained the quotes in some other manner, and we do not believe it was from an interview approved and arranged by the Sports Information Office.
* Moreover, Brent Hubbs, editor and correspondent for two media outlets that attempt to compete with the News Sentinel — and the Tennessean — routinely is afforded special privileges by the athletic department. These privileges have, in the past, included transportation with the team and exceptional access to players and coaches.
In John Painter’s letter you state that UT will “refuse to allow anyone to unfairly gain an advantage that breeches the trust necessary for all of us to work together on a daily basis…” Yet, through the examples cited above and by singling out Hooker for punishment and rebuke, we believe that is exactly what you have done.
Dave Hooker was doing what every good reporter was doing, and that is pursuing the story. We stand by Dave 100 percent and will encourage him to use the same good judgment and zeal in pursuing future stories about UT athletics.
Obviously, we are appalled and truly regret that the university has taken this step. We expect in the future a more fair-minded approach.
In addition, we also question whether UT’s media policy is relevant today. The goal of limiting media access to players seems to be motivated more by athletic administration control of the news than attempting to protect players. We think the policy should be completely re-evaluated.
Bruce R. Hartmann Jack McElroy
Publisher Editor

Behind Dave Hooker’s suspension

Yesterday, the University of Tennessee pulled Dave Hooker’s credentials to cover the Vols through the Alabama game.,1406,KNS_294_5057490,00.html There’s a bit more to the story than seemed necessary to spell out in print.
Hooker got in trouble for violating the media rule that says all contacts with players should be cleared and arranged in advance by the UT Sports Information Office. It’s a rule that often has been bent in the past. In this case, though, the interview was with Inky Johnson, the cornerback who was seriously injured in the Air Force game. (That story is attached as an extended entry). The Sports Info Office had been promising the press corps access to Inky at some point in the future. But Hooker, working through an intermediary within the UT athletic department, arranged independently to talk to the player. He conducted the interview by phone with Inky’s cooperation.
When the story hit, though, Johnson told UT offiicials that Hooker had “ambushed” him on campus. In fact, the two had crossed paths on campus, and they both said “hi,” but there was no interview. That was arranged at another time and occurred later. However, Johnson, like Hooker, did not want to implicate the anonymous intermediary who facilitated the interview.
The athletic department already was perturbed at the Sentinel for a string of stories, columns and occurrences it found objectionable. The most recent had been Sports Editor John Adams’ profile of a woman who was asked by UT not to cheer so much at Neyland Stadium because she was disturbing other fans. After the brouhaha broke, Adams used one of the News Sentinel’s credentials to bring the woman into the press box. He had in mind her writing a column about what it was like to watch a UT game in a situation in which she could not cheer. UT subsequently warned Adams of misuse of credentials.
When the athletic department then heard that Hooker had “ambushed” Johnson, AD Mike Hamilton apparently decided it was time to crack down. On Monday, Publisher Bruce Hartmann, executive sports editor Steve Ahillen and I met with Hamilton and explained Hooker’s side of the story. But the AD could not be dissuaded. He pulled the credentials yesterday. Since then, Hooker has dug out the tape of his interview with Inky and sent it to UT. It begins with the sound of a phone ringing and shows clearly that the interview was consensual and no “ambush” at all.
One thing the News Sentinel and UT would agree on, though, is that we both want the best for Inky Johnson and regret any hassle this has created for him.

Continue reading

Birthday III

Here’s the column I’ve written for Sunday’s paper. My gratitude to the many, many readers who posted this week. For the first time my blog made it into the top 10 most-read “stories” on! The feedback was forthright — to say the least — and appreciated. Thanks for being part of the News Sentinel.
Lessons learned from a birthday party
Who would have predicted that a story about a birthday party would be one of the most controversial the News Sentinel would publish this year?
The paper has been deluged with comments since “My Super Sweet 15” ran last Sunday, and the reaction certainly has given me pause to think.
Many readers objected to devoting two and half pages to coverage of a lavish party for a teenager. The point is well taken.
Certainly it was a judgment call to present the story in such detail. We did so because we thought there would be high reader interest, and there was. But many readers who saw the party as decadent felt our coverage glorified the event and contributed to the decadence.
In planning the story, we hadn’t looked at it that way. We were invited by the family to cover the party, and we accepted, believing that its extravagance and the statement it made about popular culture made it newsworthy. We chose to report descriptively and nonjudgmentally, letting the event speak for itself.
But I appreciate the feedback from those who felt our presentation went overboard and sent a harmful message to youth in the community.
Other readers complained that we don’t give extensive coverage to more positive role models. I disagree with that.
That same day’s paper included our annual full-page salute to minority youths inducted into the National Achievers Society as well as the latest in our 3-month-long series profiling the good works of the United Way. A creative new Christian ministry was the centerpiece story on both A1 and B1.
The previous day we had published a B1 centerpiece about innovative programs for deaf students. The day before that our front-page centerpiece was about a mission trip that helped a Haitian man who needed surgery. That story was a follow-up to an eight-page section we published on the mission last year.
We believe coverage of the heroes of our community is vitally important, and I’m confident the paper reflects that.
Some readers objected that we unfairly held the family up to scorn, and I can see where that would be a concern. I am less worried about the mother who hosted the party. She’s an adult, and she invited us. I’m more concerned about how her daughter might deal with the coverage.
If we crossed a line, it may have been in allowing readers to comment online. Hundreds did. Some remarks were cruel, and we removed several.
Like many newspapers nowadays, we believe reader interaction is important, and I certainly welcomed the more than 100 comments that were posted on my blog, although many were sharp criticisms of the newspaper.
But, if I had fully anticipated the hurtfulness of some of the remarks directed at the family, I might have handled the comments differently.
Finally, some critics said simply that the party wasn’t news. Perhaps it wasn’t in the traditional sense. But I’d argue that it was news as that term is understood in today’s diverse media world.
David Zeeck, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, offered this broad definition after a recent “Future of News” conference:
“News is the ultimate manifestation of a human desire to know what’s going on, to make sense of the world, to catch up on the latest. It can be a letter from home, gossip at the water cooler, or a phone call from a friend you haven’t heard from in a while. It’s a stock pick or a wanted poster. Sometimes news comes dressed as entertainment — as in movie reviews and baseball scores.
“News is information I need. It’s intelligence that gives me an edge on the competition. It’s knowledge to help me prepare for the worst. It’s facts that set me straight, trends that show me where things are headed, predictions that may (or may not) come true. It’s wisdom that helps me live better.”
News is what people talk about, and people definitely were talking about “My Super Sweet 15.” Our Web traffic showed it was the best-read and the most discussed story of the year.
In the final analysis, I still believe that discussion will prove valuable and contribute to the community’s understanding of itself. At the News Sentinel, we’ll take the feedback to heart and use it to understand how the newspaper can better foster such discussions in the future.

Birthday Party II

Perhaps I was too flip in my earlier post. But I do think “My Super Sweet 15” illustrates a paradox that is fascinating to me as an editor.
I have been blogging for most of this year, writing about an array of serious issues. But no single topic has come close to sparking so many comments. The newspaper has been deluged with letters and e-mails. The online remarks just keep pouring in.,1406,KNS_2796_80720,00.html
Yet, the most frequent observation is that the News Sentinel shouldn’t have run the story because it wasn’t proper news.
We were not naive in preparing this story. We knew it would generate tremendous reaction. During discussions in the newsroom, staff members were universally aghast at the excesses planned for Brittany Gibbs’ party.
When the family first asked if we wanted to cover the party, we had several choices. We could refuse and ignore it. We could give it minimal coverage. We could write about it but insert judgmental analyses from outside experts and turn it into a sociological tome.
Or we could accept the invitation and simply describe the party, in detail, letting readers reach their own conclusions and furnish their own commentary. We chose the last option.
In doing so, we knew there were two dangers that were, in a sense, ironic opposites. First, we realized that many readers would view the newspaper as glorifying the party, holding it as a model to be emulated. Second, we knew that there would be extreme negative reaction and we were exposing the family to public scorn.
So why do it? The answer, in my opinion, is because this party was compelling local news. True, it wasn’t traditional newspaper news: crime, government meetings and sports scores. But it was an unprecendented event in our community that touched on critically important issues such as popular culture, family values and consumerism.
If those issues don’t deserve two and a half pages of coverage, I don’t know what does.
On tomorrow’s editorial page, we will feature several letters to the editor and comments from about “My Super Sweet 15.” We will cover more reaction as it occurs. My guess is that the story will be the subject of conversations, commentary and, perhaps, even sermons for days to come.
It’s my business to sell newspapers. I hate the comments that indicate readers may stop reading the paper because of this story. But I am not ashamed of it at all. Kevin Cowan, Joe Howell, Jigsha Desai and Lauren Spuhler did a great job documenting an astounding local occurrence. (At least, Brittany’s party astounded me.) Now the whole city is talking about important issues that hit close to home.
In my book, that’s not bad journalism.

Is a birthday party news?

In Sunday’s paper we covered a birthday party. Was it news? Here are some of the comments:
“Why would you even waste you time on this story? Too bad there is only one newspaper in this town.”
“What a pathetic lack of journalistic judgement and integrity. The KNS has steadily declined (along with its circulation) over the years, but as of today — has reached its nadir.”
“How much did the News Sentinel get paid to “cover” this? What a waste of space.”
“Shame on you KNS! How dare you glorify this gluttony & excess! ”
The party was a lavish one based on an MTV show. It included topless high school boys invited as “eye candy,” a rapper from Atlanta, a lap dance and four costume changes for the 15-year-old birthday girl and a BMW convertible as a gift.
Comments are appearing on our Web site at the rate of about one every five minutes. Letters are pouring in. The outrage is almost universal — at the girl, her mother and, of course, at the News Sentinel.
How dare we cover, in a non-judgmental way, an event that raises a plethora of questions about values in 21st century America and East Tennessee! What of waste of time, for us and apparently for the thousands and thousands of people who invested their mornings devouring the story in print and online and discussing it across town, merrily condemnnig all involved.
I love it.