Standing for Something--The Purpose & Role of Newspapers
Also, celebrating 'Sunshine Week' and the importance of open government and freedom of information
‘Sunshine Week’ is celebrated in mid-March, not as a ritual to the gods pleading for a return of warm weather and bright skies, but rather to point out the importance of open government and freedom of information. It’s an observance created by the American Society of News Editors in 2005, with the date selected to coincide with James Madison’s birthday on March 16. A nod to the Father of the American Constitution.
It’s roots go back three years earlier when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in response to efforts by some of that state’s legislators to create new exemptions to the state’s public records law. In the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays, FSNE estimated about 300 exemptions were defeated because of the public awareness that was created through this spotlight.
Interesting, a new batch of Florida lawmakers is currently working at the behest of their ‘freedom-loving’ governor to craft a law that would severely limit freedom of the press—and by extension freedom of speech. The goal is to get the U.S. Supreme Court to re-visit Sullivan v. the New York Times, a landmark decision that came during the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s when a Southern government official sued the Times for making a mistake in an article.
As a result, the media has had more latitude in its coverage and not had to face this type of financial threat.
Without this constitutional protection, a newspaper or media outlet could be sued by a wealthy individual or government official for printing an unintentional, even trivial inaccuracy made in an article—either done so by a reporter or when the publication or outlet quotes someone. The goal of the plaintiff might not be to win the case, but rather to silence the coverage or financially cripple the paper or outlet.
It should be added that, even with this protection, that scenario has happened.
There are legal standards for libel or publishing false information that is harmful, but the criteria is fairly lenient when it involves public officials.
Sunshine Week, however, is mainly about championing governmental transparency rather than press freedom, although it would be hard to enjoy the former without the latter.
In Michigan, we have the Open Meetings Act that requires a quorum be present at a meeting of a public body, the meeting be open to the public, with exceptions made in certain circumstances for a closed meeting.
There’s also the Freedom of Information Act which, according to the Legislature’s guideline publication, establishes procedures to “ensure every citizen’s right of access to government documents.”
FOIA also gives the public the right to inspect and receive copies of records of local and state governmental bodies.
All of this is centered on the quaint notion that people should be able to see firsthand how a unit of government conducts business and to have access to public records.
Having these legal guarantees allows the public, including reporters, to witness the discussions, better understand how decisions are made, and hold officials accountable for their conduct.
All of that said, I thought I’d re-print a column I did in March of 2017.
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A LITTLE OVER TWO YEARS AGO THIS NEWSPAPER completed its 30th year in business, the first issue being a four-page newsletter published on Jan. 17, 1985. I acknowledged this accomplishment of longevity with a front-page article that included a photo of my wife Dawn and I standing next to the Fowlerville News & Views sign in the front yard of our office.
As a result of that article, we received a number of congratulatory messages and, after a few days, figured that would be the extent of the celebration. However, we were further honored at a Fowlerville Village Council meeting during which a State of Michigan Special Tribute was presented to us.
Our son, Bradley, who accompanied us, took a photo, and posted it on Facebook, resulting in a slew of additional congratulatory messages and well wishes. The event even got reported on Livingston County’s WHMI Radio.
All and all, a good deal more hoopla than I’d intended with my initial article, but I’d be a liar to say I didn’t enjoy the attention.
So, having experienced that moment in the limelight, I saw no reason to make a big deal about completing our 31st year last January or, more recently, our the 32nd year.
As a society, we tend to recognize certain numerical milestones as important, like a 10th or 40th birthday or a 25th or 50th wedding anniversary or high school class reunion. Increments of five or ten years tend to be the rule of thumb in deciding what constitutes a noteworthy passage of time.
George Adams, who owned and operated The Fowlerville Review for 55 years, often made mention of having finished another year in business and didn’t seem to care whether or not the anniversary date constituted a milestone year or not. For example, on August 11, 1905, with the paper having completed its 31st year, he offered this reflection:
“We are willing to confess it has never reached our ideal of what a newspaper should be, and yet we have one satisfaction that The Review has always stood for something. The editor has always had his convictions upon public questions, and the evil and abuses of the day, and although it has cost him many dollars to express them he has not hesitated to do so, and never will.
“Those 31 years have not been without their mistakes and errors,” he continued, “and yet we may be pardoned for mentioning the fact that the paper has never taken a position upon any public question that it had to back up on.”
The Review had been launched in 1874, by Willard Hess and George Adams, a pair of young entrepreneurs who had come to Fowlerville looking for an opportunity. The village had experienced a good deal of growth both in population and commercial activity since the completion of a railroad line three years earlier that linked Detroit with Lansing, so the young men, after researching the situation, felt the community would support a newspaper along with the accompanying printing business.
As with many business start-ups, then and now, high hopes do not always match reality. The partnership did not last long due to the shaky finances of this new enterprise and the realization that it would not support two households. For a few months Hess assumed sole control of the business, but then decided to abandon the project, Adams stepped in as the editor-publisher. By his own account, the next several years had their ups and downs, but Adams persevered. Eventually the situation improved and he would continue on until 1929 when he sold the business. About a year later he passed away.
His milestone event came in 1924 when, in celebration of the paper’s 50th year, the Michigan Press Association held a dinner in his honor in the basement of the Fowlerville Methodist Church. On that occasion he received a number of tributes.
Adams was a died-in-the wool prohibitionist and when he mentioned “the evil and abuses of the day” he was likely referring to alcohol and what he felt was the undue power of the saloons and the liquor industry on public policy. Stories of bad behavior, ruined families, and criminal behavior—caused by drunkenness—were often printed in the paper.
He also vigorously opposed any loosening of existing local ordinances regulating the operation of saloons and the sale of spirits.
In that same 1905 issue of The Review, Adams wrote about the murder of a business man in Detroit and the fact that the police had been unable to find any clue to the perpetrators of the awful deed. He noted that this crime had occurred at the man’s “place of business, located in the business part of the city, in broad daylight, during business hours.” A reader didn’t need to wonder what Adams was getting at because in the next paragraph, he wrote:
“During the past few years Detroit has been growing to be more of a ‘wide open’ city. The police have made but little attempt to enforce the liquor laws and gambling houses have been running, much of the time with the knowledge of the officials. The daily papers have called attention to some of the most prominent gambling houses and through the efforts of the press many of the stalls have been driven out of the salons.
“Some of the city officials have been convicted as grafters and the present sheriff of the county openly declares himself as a free and easy.”
More typical of his approach was this report that he featured on the front page of “three married women, the eldest not 23 years, and three children with them being taken out of a saloon in Detroit one day last week and taken to the police station, given a good lecture and sent home with their children.
“The husband of one of the women said that when he married his wife over a year ago he was addicted to drink, but she had made a man of him and he had quit the habit and his heart was full of sorrow that his wife had taken up the habit,” the report continued.
Adams, having laid out these facts, wrote: “That is just the way with the saloon. It must have victims or go out of business. If it can’t get the husband it will get the wife and if it can’t get either it will reach out after the children. But its doom is sealed. The people will wake up some day and the saloon will have to go, and then they will wonder why they allowed it so long.”
Adams had other strong opinions on various issues of the day—local, state, and national. A lay minister with the Fowlerville Methodist Church, he brought a religious zeal and self-certainty to his beliefs and pronouncements. If he had doubts about what he was saying, there was little evidence of them in his editorials.
A familiar complaint of his during the late 1890s was the high price of paper, a situation he blamed on the Paper Trust. Companies colluding to control the market of a particular product or commodity (like the paper used for printing) and, by doing so, squeeze out high profits were a bane for many small businesses as well as the public during that era.
In one of his Editorial Notes, Adams observed: “John D. Rockefeller (owner of Standard Oil) gave ten million dollars last week to the cause of higher education in this country. Now look out for a stiff raise in the price of oil.”
George Adams saw his weekly newspaper, and by extension the press, as a force for good in society and as a watchdog on behalf of the American public. The evils of hard spirits, public corruption, and unfair business practices were only a few of the dragons he attempted to slay. There were others he took on over the years. And it didn’t matter if the dragon resided in Fowlerville, down the road in Detroit, at the State Capitol in Lansing, or in Washington, D.C.
A newspaper, whether in a small farming community (as Fowlerville was in 1905) or a large city like Detroit, had other purposes and roles as well. Over the years Adams promoted what he regarded as needed improvements to the town, including sidewalks, added fire protection, better schools, and business growth. In addition, he opposed certain proposals he felt were ill-advised or would be harmful.
The newspaper in that long-ago year also offered reports on the happenings of the surrounding rural neighborhoods; the latest state, national, and international news headlines as well as in-depth articles on issues of public importance; agricultural information; a religious message; a serialized fiction story; advertisements for local merchants; and a fair share of ads extolling the health benefits of various tonics and syrups.
For an eight-page broadsheet—the size of the newspaper at that time—The Review packed a lot of news, information, and commentary into its columns.
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OUR CURRENT WORLD, LOCALLY AND BEYOND, IS MUCH DIFFERENT NOW from when Adams reflected on the completion of his 31st year. I wouldn’t hazard to list the many momentous events and innovations that have occurred since his commentary. In human terms, 111 years constitutes a good deal of water over the dam.
By 1905 Adams had already witnessed a good deal of change since he and Hess had started the paper. He would see a good deal more during the coming quarter century before he ended his career. He would live long enough for Prohibition to be enacted in 1920 as a nationwide Constitutional ban, an event that seemed to fulfill his prediction that the saloon was doomed.
But he would have also been around long enough to be aware of speakeasies, the rise of gangs enriched from supplying alcohol, and the flaunting of the law by many Americans. However, he did not live to see Prohibition repealed in 1933, but—given his strong opinions on the matter—it’s safe to assume (had he the chance) he’d have written a scathing editorial in opposition.
As an editor-publisher, I can likewise claim to have seen my share of changes in the 32 years since we began publishing the Fowlerville News & Views. Having gotten a later start in ownership than Adams, it’s unlikely though I’ll be around to observe a 55th anniversary as he did.
I’m not sure what image of an ideal newspaper Adams had in his mind back then. The technology of producing a paper had become easier for him, and production improvements would continue. However, other technological advancements and social evolutions were also occurring in the wider world. These changes were not only altering what content was put in a newspaper, but impacting the newspaper’s purpose and role in the community.
By 1905 daily papers and magazines had already become more accessible due to rural free delivery, meaning that small-town weeklies in those early years of the 20th century were becoming less and less a main source of news (other than the local variety) for their audience. Movie pictures and radio were on the horizon, widening the realm of communication and entertainment.
Nor were people as isolated as they once were. The railroad had allowed easier travel and a greater connectivity. The automobile, then still a novelty, would further shrink the distances and make individuals and families more mobile. Further ahead would be airplanes, television, and the disruption of two world wars.
Yet, in looking at the contents of this long-ago edition, I see that the underlying principle has not changed all that much. The newspaper back then was a commons of sort, a public place where people read news of all sorts as well as thoughts, opinions, fears, hopes, humor, and concerns. The publication was a venue for sharing personal accomplishments and milestone occasions. It was also a means of commercial activity, providing a convenient way for businesses to advertise their merchandise and services to the public.
Like Adams, I’ll confess that putting out the ideal newspaper has eluded me. Still, I don’t spend too much time worrying about imaginary perfection. I know there’s always room for improvement and will aim to do so. Also, I’ve lived long enough to know there are ups and downs in the economy, in the world, and in this business. The trick is to persevere.
Knowing that trick is a reason we celebrate those five and ten-year passages of time. We tip our hat to “still being around.”
However… there’s a good deal more to life and to a livelihood than “persevering.” The more important part of Adam’s comment (at least to me) was his satisfaction that the newspaper “had always stood for something” and that he, as its editor, had been willing to express his opinions on public matters, based on his personal conviction, and been willing to accept the consequences.
I’m of a different temperament than Adams was. While I have my convictions and feel they come from a moral foundation, I’m not as bold or brass in my written pronouncements (or at least I don’t think so.) My zeal is more subdued. I attempt to be more measured. Perhaps that comes from sitting in the pew rather than standing at the pulpit.
Yet, in my defense, there have been numerous times when I hesitated to write a news article, given the controversy surrounding it, or to express an opinion knowing others might strongly disagree or even be upset, including those in power or who were friends and longtime acquaintances. Despite that hesitation and mental debate, I’ve generally went ahead and printed them
What has usually tipped the scales was that I could not hide from the fact I had taken on this career at my own initiative and, in doing so, it entailed certain expectations and responsibilities. First and foremost of those responsibilities and expectations is to inform the public on what’s going on with their government and in the rest of the world around them and to do so with news reports, analysis, and comment.
For this reason, I had an obligation—to them but also myself—to write the article and express my opinion on the matter and to do so under the guidelines and ethics of the profession. If I didn’t want the troubles of operating a newspaper, if I couldn’t’ stand the heat, I could always try my hand at some other line of work.
I also keep in mind that I’m part of a continuum. That first Fowlerville newspaper, as mentioned, was published in August of 1874. Other than an interruption from 1971 through 1975, there’s been a local paper in this community ever since.
The first American newspaper was printed in Boston in 1690. It and other early publications were careful not to offend the British Colonial authorities, but over time the number of papers grew, their influence became immeasurable, and the concept and value of a free press, unfettered by governmental, religious, or other social controls evolved and became enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
These are challenging times to be a journalist and to publish a newspaper. Our role and purpose are being questioned. In addition, there are other sources of information and commentary available to the public, most of it coming from the internet.
I realize I’m a small fish in a big pond when it comes to journalism (or 'the media' as it's now called), still it’s the pond I inhabit. I believe newspapers have been of great value in this effort at self-government and in assisting the public in making informed decisions and better understanding what’s happening in the world around them. I believe they remain so.
A newspaper should stand for something, George Adams wrote those many years ago. I share that sentiment. For me a newspaper champions the public’s right to know and serves as a testament to the importance of free expression.
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Steve Horton is a mid-Michigan journalist and editor-publisher of the Fowlerville News & Views—a weekly newspaper. If you like this or other columns, please share to help build the audience. Any and all comments are welcome. Thanks.