You might expect journalists to be jealous of their colleagues who win national acclaim. Instead, as we read the stories about reporters, editors and columnists at big and small newspapers around the country winning prestigious Pulitzer Prizes this week, we felt pride.
It’s encouraging to learn that others in the industry are continuing the diligent “grunt” work of turning over rocks and heeding Deep Throat’s famous advice to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to “follow the money.” That they do so in hard economic times is especially uplifting. Such journalism in the public interest often doesn’t lead directly to new revenue for newspapers. And those sorts of stories can anger advertisers or powerful people in the community. This sort of journalism takes courage.
The Bristol Herald Courier, a small daily (33,000 circulation, seven reporters) covering the Appalachian region of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, produced a multipart series that revealed minimum state oversight of natural gas extraction in the region. Gas corporations are required to pay royalties into an escrow fund when landowners on whose property the gas is extracted cannot be located. But the companies were not paying into the fund, and landowners were not getting their money.
The series helped landowners get their money and brought ongoing scrutiny to a powerful industry; in that sense, the paper’s efforts fulfilled the old journalism maxim, “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
But newspaper staffs don’t sit around their offices plotting to afflict someone or some business just for the sake of doing so. In fact, the vast majority of reporting is the work of disclosing what public bodies are doing. We report on businesses, typically, when they intersect with public money and elected officials, such as when the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway planned to abandon a section of track and legislators stepped in to save it with state money.
The subjective, yet critical role a newspaper plays comes in presenting the right mix of news for the community it serves. The old Jerry Seinfeld joke about it being a fantastic coincidence that the amount of news that happened in a day exactly fits the number of pages (in print, anyway), makes the point. We must assess what our customers want to know, and present it in a palatable form, while also providing context. (We doubt that many people want to follow the Bangor City Council by reading the official minutes, so our reporting provides context.)
At their best, newspapers and their Web sites are entertaining (the latest on “American Idol”), enlightening (what sorts of businesses will thrive as the economy improves), practical (there’s a rash of car burglaries on your street), engaging (how your tax dollars were spent), and, sometimes, a little salacious (new disclosures on Tiger Woods).
It’s not every day that a newspaper can do what the Bristol Herald Courier did, shining a light on negligence and economic injustice. But when it does, it reminds us of the power of newspapers, a power that’s closely tied to a responsibility to get it right and to be fair.