It’s Not About Us

By Austin Lewter
Publisher at Whitesboro Publishing Co.

I have been accepted to the graduate school of Mass Communications at Stephen F. Austin State University and will start working on my M.A. this fall. I was required to submit an essay as part of the application process and thought I would share my submission here:

Austin Lewter

Austin Lewter

The global media landscape has changed more dramatically over the past decade than at any other time in the past 200 years. As professionals, we have witnessed staggering changes in consumer habits and, at the same time, have tried to keep up with those changes. The business model of news has shifted to a point where it seems getting the story first is more important than getting it right. Many news organizations have lost sight of the fact that the news is not about them. The news is about the subjects of the story, the consumers of the story and, ultimately, the community affected by the story. I have long desired a move into collegiate education, thus my application to the Mass Media Program at SFA. I have never seen more of a need for better guidance and mentorship in our industry than right now. I am ready to be part of the solution and am sure SFA is a prime training ground to do just that.

Randy Mankin is the immediate past-president of the Texas Press Association where he has served as a board member for 14 years. He is the president of Masked Rider Publishing who owns and publishes the Big Lake Wildcat and Eldorado Success. Both are small weekly newspapers operating among the current West Texas oil boom. His son, J.L., is the award-winning editor of the Wildcat while Randy serves as editor of the Success. He is a champion of his community and widely respected in professional circles for his passion for excellent community journalism.

Along with being the county seat of Schleicher County, Eldorado was also the site of the YFZ Ranch. It once served as the headquarters of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At the head of the organization was felon Warren Jeffs. In early 2008, state officials removed over 400 children from the polygamist compound and the national media descended upon Randy’s hometown. He later told an assembly of the North & East Texas Press Association he was excited, at first, about working side-by-side with national media heavyweights. He said he even made room for some Internet connections and desks in the back of his newspaper’s office to give the correspondents a place to work.

“That lasted until they started stealing our sources,” Randy said. “And, beyond that, the story they were telling did not accurately depict what was happening in our town… it was to the point that I had a national correspondent from CNN, a name you’d recognize if I told you, say, ‘Randy, you are a weekly newspaper. You have the luxury of getting the story right. We have to get it first.'”

The Success continued to get the story right and published it both in print and online. Soon thereafter, Randy stumbled upon the local regional daily newspaper’s website to find a picture he had taken and published on his website as the lead art on their homepage.

“There it was, a picture we had copyrighted on our website in full color on their online edition… it didn’t even have a photo credit,” Randy said. He called the senior editor at the respected West Texas daily complaining of copyright infringement and plagiarism. “The editor informed me their using our photo was not plagiarism. ‘In this day and age, that is just news gathering,’ he told me,” Randy said. The national correspondents stayed in Eldorado until the next big story broke that November. A madman had gone on a rampage in Killeen and the news trucks rolled east. When the dust settled, the Eldorado Success was one of the only media outlets left covering Warren Jeffs’ day in court. They got the story right while the national affiliates had moved on to the next headline.

Randy’s story is not unique. There are diligent community media outlets across the nation who have witnessed the carelessness of regional and national firms first hand. The Internet and social media have seemingly done away with the 24-hour news cycle and replaced it with a 15-minute news cycle. In doing so, ethical practices and getting the facts straight are sometimes forgotten. It behooves us as leaders, mentors and managers to help fix the problem. No matter the medium in which news is delivered, the news must be accurate. Standards of good reporting, storytelling and ethical practice cannot fall prey to the relentless pressure of getting the story first. Young journalists and current professionals should uphold the same values and practices on which our free press was established, no matter the method in which that press operates. In the wake of the social media explosion of the past decade, expediency is on the verge of replacing accuracy and that simply cannot be allowed.

In reporting the news, we provide a service to our community. We do not operate community service organizations, but media companies exist (at their core) to serve a community. It is not about us. It is about the community. Our consumers value the information we provide. They rely upon it for their day-to-day lives. It influences their decisions and opinions. As such, we carry a great responsibility to those we serve. We also carry a great responsibility to the advertisers who subsidize our livelihoods. But those two responsibilities cannot fall upon blurry lines. Media consolidations and cutbacks over the past decade have led to the age-old wall between advertising and editorial departments lessening in stature. More and more, hyper-local newspapers have editors who sell ads and ad reps who contribute editorial content. Much of this can be attributed to the “all hands on deck” mentality it requires to publish a community product with a staff of two or three people. As we evolve toward a point of complete departmental emersion, we must not let the rolling of the free press be trumped by the quest for the almighty dollar that pays for the press to run.

I learned this lesson first hand as a young editor at the small community weekly. At the time, I was covering most of a news and sports budget that included three city halls and four school districts. One afternoon, a call went out on the police scanner about an attempted suicide at an area business. An employee at the local feed store had hung himself in the warehouse. Co-workers caught him in the act and intervened before he lost his life. Emergency crews were dispatched and an air ambulance was launched. The local fire department closed a portion of the adjacent state highway on which to land the helicopter. Traffic was diverted for over an hour. I was three hours out from deadline and well within a window to get the story in that week’s print edition, so I reported to the scene with camera in hand. I got a statement from the police chief and took a few photos of the helicopter landing on the pavement. After returning to the office, I revamped my front page with a picture of the helicopter and an extended cutline. I opted not to write a full story mainly because the compelling artwork and concise cutline, I felt, relayed the facts succinctly.

While paginating my efforts, my publisher walked by my desk and saw the image of the helicopter on page one. His interest piqued and he asked what had happened. I told him about my afternoon and he read the cutline. He asked me again where the incident happened. When I reminded him, he said, “They are one of our biggest advertisers. Did you ask the owner how he felt about us running this?” I told him I had not, but I could only assume the owner would not look too favorably upon the story. It was a tragedy and it happened on his clock, but that shouldn’t negate our obligation to relay the story to the readers, if for no other reason than a state highway was closed for over an hour to land a helicopter.

We debated the issue briefly. I believed by reporting the facts, we could quell the rumor mill. My cutline did not contain the patient’s name, though it could have, and I thought we were as respectful as possible under the circumstances. He disagreed and was concerned the advertiser might take out his discontent on his local marketing budget. Ultimately, the photo did not run and I learned a valuable lesson: the man who owns the press, not the man who runs the press, supremely holds the freedom of the press. I followed my publisher’s order, the photo was trashed and the advertiser maintained his support. Until this day, I feel we did our community a disservice. They had the right to know and we opted out. As a whole, the industry cannot opt out. We must respectfully and responsibly tell the stories that matter to the folks we serve. If we do so to the best of our ability, advertisers will support our efforts. Free markets must not hinder a free press, and we must be able to determine when such threats are relevant.

All this being said, the question at hand is, “Why do I want to further my education?” The answer is simple, because I want to be part of the solution. Our industry lacks confident, steadfast mentors who can effectively influence the decision process of media professionals on all ends of the spectrum. I am passionate about becoming that person of influence. Research and scholarship are only applicable if they lead to professional success that yields financial stability. Advisers, professors and researchers are obligated not only to dispense knowledge, but also to contribute to the gathering of it. I have had a few mentors along the way who have displayed the example I strive to set; first as an undergraduate and moreover upon entering the professional world.

One such positive influence was Dr. John Allen Hendricks. He was the radio adviser at my alma mater. I was not a broadcast major, but all communication students had to take a semester of radio broadcast. Dr. Hendricks taught the class and, in doing so, staffed the campus radio station two shifts per night with those of us enrolled. Being a small regional university, the entire communications department filled the second floor of a small building that was erected soon after the Eisenhower administration. The student newspaper was at one end of the hallway and the radio station was at the other. Modest offices and even more modest classrooms bridged the two. I majored in journalism and spent most of my time in the newsroom where I served as the News Editor of the campus newspaper. I had fun hosting a three-hour radio show on Thursday nights, but my real passion was print. The department was small and the students were tight-knit so I usually had a friend on the air behind the glass at the other end of the hallway. When I did, it became a habit to stroll down to the radio station and check in on whoever was behind the mic. I was silent while the mic was open and we would continue visiting after the music resumed. One night a DJ friend surprised me by opening another mic and announcing my presence on the air. He then asked me what stories we were working on for that week’s newspaper. I told him and we bantered back and forth briefly before returning to the music. It was a fun exchange and it soon became a weekly ritual. My adviser encouraged it, and we felt as if we were converging mediums.

I was at the radio station on another occasion eavesdropping on the news director preparing his daily top-of-the-hour update. His phone rang and it was a fellow broadcast major who was in Sherman, Texas (the next large town south of ours). Our friend on the phone told him the state highway in Sherman was closed due to a possible active shooter situation near a middle school that had been possibly placed on lock down. It all sounded very exciting. The reporter was a senior staff member at the radio station. He was giving us a blow-by-blow account of what he saw as he pulled off the road snooping around. He then told the news director he should go live with him on the telephone on air with what he was witnessing at the scene. The news director reminded him the station did not have the technology for live remotes. The caller told him how he could hold his phone in front of the mic and it would likely transmit well over the air. At first, I was just a witness to all of this. The news director liked the idea and rigged the technology. He interrupted programming with a, “breaking news update and our reporter on the scene.” When he did, he activated the second studio mic, shoved it in front of my face and introduced me as part of the reporting crew. Like any good journalist, I started asking questions too.

We thought we were really on to something. Dr. Hendricks did not. A few minutes into the ordeal, he emerged from his nearby office and quietly asked us to return to music. When we did, and the mics were closed, he took the teaching moment to inform us why what we had just done was irresponsible. He reminded us Sherman was not only across the county line, but also across the state line and was well outside of our coverage area. He told us a man driving by with a cell phone was not as viable a source as validating the incident with police. Most importantly, our friend reported, “he had heard the local Middle School was on lock down.” We never vetted the report or confirmed that such was the case.

“What if someone who heard your broadcast has a child in that school?” Dr. Hendricks asked. “Now they are worried about something that could or could not be happening all because someone on the phone ‘heard’ something.” In our defense, the news director valued the opinion and orders of the senior staff member and our intentions were well meaning, but it was irresponsible. The police incident ended with a suicide in an apartment building, no school lock down, no one else hurt and me learning a valuable lesson: the value of vetting sources and concern for the well being of those to whom we were broadcasting. I have practiced this lesson daily since our broadcast and thank Dr. Hendricks for offering it. After that, I enrolled in a few more of Dr. Hendricks’ classes and wished him luck when he left our small university to accept his current position at SFA.

The second part of the original question, “Why do I want to further my education, at Stephen F. Austin State University?” Quite frankly, after my experiences as an undergraduate with Dr. Hendricks, I am excited about the opportunity to work with him as a graduate student. I value his opinion and am in debt to him for the lesson he taught me that day. Practical perspective is lacking in our field and I know SFA offers such practical perspective. I am excited possibly to be a part of that tradition. I am passionate about three principles: 1) not letting expediency threaten accuracy, 2) news is not about the ones who report it and 3) wanting to be part of the solution and not the problem. I know SFA is dedicated to the same ideals, and I anticipate a rewarding collaboration.