His name is lost to history, but the editor of a mid-sized newspaper in an industrialized Midwestern town figures prominently in perhaps the most famous journalism research study ever.
The guy didn’t care for the Catholic Church, and so he refused to publish stories about a priest who criticized newspaper coverage. The editor also favored conservative perspectives, so when given the choice, he wouldn’t run a story that had a liberal slant.
In this pre-internet age just after World War II, one man chose almost all of the information that the people in his community got to read: “The community shall hear as fact only those events which the newsman, as the representative of his culture, believes to be true,” researcher David Manning White wrote in the 1950 report, which never identified the newspaper or its editor.
Some places still exist like this when it comes to local news and information. Consider Linden, Alabama, where one white man, the editor, owner and publisher of the Democrat-Reporter advocated on Valentine’s Day for the Ku Klux Klan to rise up again and ride into Washington to clear out the Democrats, who control the House of Representatives.
This man apparently believes that enough of his readers agree with this outlook that it won’t hurt his bottom line, or he’s willing to risk the consequence that readers will look away. Just as likely, if you consider the comments of people who live in the town, the publisher realizes that residents have few other choices for local information other than to purchase his newspaper.
Pittsburghers, fortunately, don’t face this sort of dilemma. The city has multiple news outlets — in print and on the internet — with varying perspectives on local news and information. And, yet, over the past several months, I have received different variations of the question that Alma Wisniewski sent me this week: Should I stop my subscription?
Alma already canceled her subscription to the Post-Gazette once before, when the newspaper fired cartoonist Rob Rogers last summer. Then she missed getting the newspaper and wanted to support its journalists, so she subscribed again.
Now, with the Post-Gazette’s publisher ranting in the newsroom and appointing opinion editor Keith Burris to oversee news, she’s wondering about dropping the newspaper again. She’s right to feel concerned about the newspaper: It’s unusual for the same editor to oversee opinion and news, and it’s more controversial in this case because Burris has overseen the editorial page at a time when it has shifted to a more conservative, populist outlook.
The changes have been well-documented, like when the Post-Gazette declined to endorse Hillary Clinton for president, when it chose a populist Republican for Congress and when it let Rogers go after refusing to run some of his cartoons critical of President Trump.
“Realizing it’s only one small subscription, I still want to support the legit professional newspaper staff,” Alma wrote to me. “But I do not want to support that editor or Block, who had the hissy fit and is upset about unions.”
It’s not easy deciding what to do when your favorite news outlet shifts its ideology. Things used to seem simple in Pittsburgh when the Tribune-Review had a conservative voice and the Post-Gazette had a liberal one, but I pointed out last year that both newspapers have changed up their tone.
First, it’s important to remember that newspapers are more than just their owner and publisher. Lots of people – reporters, editors, photographers, print shop workers, advertising salespeople, delivery drivers and more – work hard to create the news product, and they represent a wide diversity of opinions.
I should know. I spent 15 years working for the Tribune-Review and for publisher Richard Scaife, who died in 2014 and who was famously conservative. I often heard about the publisher’s perspective when I went out to report on stories. Once a small mob at a Hillary Clinton rally in 2008 turned on me for working at the Trib. Of course, we had the last laugh when Scaife met Clinton and fell in love with her.
Yes, Scaife had a conservative perspective and, yes, he definitely used the opinions page of the newspaper to share his ideology. But he never once came to me in the newsroom and told me to write a hit piece on someone or squashed a story he didn’t like.
Instead, he used his money to let us tell honest, accurate stories, realizing apparently that if more people read the news, a few might check out the opinions page, too. Even when a major advertiser pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the newspaper before one of our investigative stories, Scaife backed the newsroom and let the story run.