October 07, 2012

Coping with many hats, one head

(This column originally appeared on Riverhead LOCAL, an independent local news site in Riverhead, N.Y., on Oct. 5, 2012)

Since I started working full-time for our family-owned and operated community news website, I've taken care not to editorialize on local issues — the stuff I report on.

I hate being in the position of reporting on a subject and then editorializing on it. I believe it detracts from the public's perception of a reporter's neutrality.

If I tell you my point of view on a particular subject, will you trust me to report on it fairly and fully thereafter?

Of course, you know I have an opinion, whether I write editorials expressing it or not. Right? I'd like to think my opinion doesn't come through in my news-reporting. That's what I try for, and I try my best.

When I was editor at the News-Review, I was often in the position of reporting on something and editorializing about it. Our editorials carried no byline, though, and no matter who wrote them, we always said they were the product of our "editorial board." That was sort of duplicitous. They were usually penned by one person, edited by another, and the voice of the editorials at the time was usually mine.

Then, of course, there were my weekly columns. And on page nine, well, I usually let it all hang out.

A lot of the time, though, there were other reporters churning out the stories I was editorializing about. And that's a much more comfortable place to be. But unlike big newspaper companies, we didn't have the staff to have people strictly devoted to the editorial pages. We couldn't maintain a separation of editorial page staff and newsroom staff like they do at, say, The New York Times.

I don't think our credibility as a community newspaper suffered much. I was told many, many times by lots of different folks that they didn't always agree with my editorials but always found my news reporting "straight down the middle." I'd say it was "fair and balanced," but that phrase has been polluted in an Orwellian sort of way by Faux News, and as a result, I just can't get myself to utter it to describe how I report.

I wish I could hire two really good full-time reporters, or maybe even one. He or she would carry much of the reporting duties, and I would function as an editor — and start regularly writing columns again. I don't have the time to do it now, and I also feel the tug of the above-described dilemma. People are always telling me how much they miss my columns. And I do believe it would be mostly beneficial for RiverheadLOCAL to have a "voice."

Do you think I'm being old-fashioned worrying about these "separation" issues?

Another thing: It's hard enough reporting on things that the advertisers who support you don't want to have reported. What happens when you editorialize in a way they don't like? I'm familiar with that scenario from my years at the paper. You get yelled at. They threaten to pull their advertising. They do pull their advertising. Eventually it all worked out. But at the paper, which, though a family-owned small business, was a much larger company than RiverheadLOCAL, we did have a separation of news/editorial and advertising. At RiverheadLOCAL, we do as well. But the guy selling the ads is the co-owner of the company — and my husband.

These are some of the perils of what the industry wonks refer to as "entrepreneurial journalism."  They think it's the future of the news. In fact, in the past year, I was part of a 12-person study of independent "hyperlocal" news sites, funded by journalism foundations. They picked 12 successful websites to see if they could figure out what made our sites work. And they offered us business coaching and assistance throughout the year. I hope to write a paper about what I learned. Maybe I'll even write a book. In my spare time.

Anyway, I started out to write a column about what has happened to the neighborhood where Peter and I have lived for the past 17 years, where we raised our family and planned to spend the rest of our lives. The column I have in my head was inspired by last night's planning board meeting.

Then I started thinking about all this other stuff and wrote this column instead. I guess that was my purpose in starting up this "javascripts" column: it's supposed to be about what we do and how we do it, not the subject matter of the stories we cover.

I've been a failure (as I predicted) at writing this column on a regular basis. There's just not enough time in the day (and night).

My coach this past year kept urging me to not go so deep on stories, write shorter, more superficial. It's good enough, he would say. And it will take less time.

But it's just not in my constitution to report that way. I've got to do it right or not at all. I believe with all my heart, that when it comes to community journalism, when it's a subject people care about, something right in their backyards, something that will directly affect their pocketbooks and their daily lives, they are engaged and want to know the whole story. Not half-baked tidbits about it. ("The five things you need to know about development on Rt. 58...")

I believe this because I've witnessed it. And it's something that journalists from big dailies don't seem to get.

Oh, well. What do you think? Should I write editorial columns expressing opinions about things I report on? Would you trust my reporting on something if you knew what my opinion on it was? Let me know.

Denise Civiletti, reporter, editor, digital maven and former newspaper editor and publisher, lives and works in Riverhead, N.Y. She vaguely remembers having a life away from electronic gadgets before being consumed by her role as a digital-hyperlocal-news-entrepreneur-pioneer — lol— publishing RiverheadLocal.com with her husband, Peter Blasl.

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