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Newspapers have responsibilities

From the Ground Up

Which of the following headlines would you choose for a newspaper article that reported that Mississippi`s per capita income was rising at a rate faster than the national average?

a. “Mississippi Income Growth Rate Rising”

b. “Mississippi Remains Last in Income”

If you chose “a,” you are probably an optimist, and if you chose “b,” you probably tend to be somewhat pessimistic. Both headlines are accurate.

During several of the past six years Mississippi`s per capita income growth rate has been higher than that of the nation. Mississippi`s per capita income has also ranked last, currently at about 72% of the national average.

One of my local newspapers chose to run the “b” headline not long ago. When I pointed this out to an acquaintance who is a newspaper reporter, it led to a lively discussion of the role of newspapers in a community. His position was that a newspaper is a journal of the noteworthy events in a community. It just reports what happens and then provides commentary labeled as such on the editorial page.

I disagree.

I believe that the local newspaper, by choosing which stories to print and how the headlines will read, is a powerful and influential force in setting the mood of a community. Most newspaper publishers would be embarrassed and astounded to know how much influence they actually possess. Many would even opine that in today`s world it is the electronic media that has the most influence on a community.

Again, I disagree.

Travel to any city in the United States and watch the local television news. There is likely not a whole lot of difference in the broadcasts. There are usually a crime story, a government story and a story about some local organization doing good in the community. The local newspaper is another matter. It is there – in the local newspaper – that one can taste the uniqueness of a community. Reading a local newspaper is to savor a community and really learn about it. It`s just that it`s done through the eyes of the newspaper.

The changing face of

your local newspaper

Newspapers in general are going through some tough times. Consumers of news have numerous alternatives, especially the electronic media. Also, the alternatives often provide the national news instantly. Still, the newspaper is the primary source for in-depth local news.

In a May 18, 1997 New York Times article by Iver Peterson, the headline read, “Newspapers Seek Personal Connection With Readers.” The story was about newspapers` efforts to reverse the trends of declining circulation, an aging readership and weaker ties between the public and their papers. One way was to give readers a say in what they want in the newspaper instead of deciding it for them. The editor of a newspaper in Washington invited representatives of 32 different groups in for coffee and conversation. He found out that some of the groups were mad at their reporting. Other newspapers are finding that their readers want more news that is local and that they can use and that they can relate to. The San Jose Mercury News turns over a weekly features section, Celebration, to heartwarming articles written by readers. Regular departments are “Quotable Kids,” “How I Met My True Love,” and “The Seven-Second Philosopher.” It is now one of the newspaper`s most popular features.

One of my favorite newspapers is The Northside Sun. It`s about local as can be. It contains local news, excellent editorial commentary, lots of articles written by local citizens and pictures, pictures, pictures of people doing good things in the community. Another favorite is the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, which I read online every day. Its “local” area is an entire section of the state, but it manages to convey a sense of community and pride in its area. I also like the Gulf Coast`s Sun Herald, which features a short “Scenes From The Beach” column by George Thatcher, a retired Gulfport banker.

This is not an argument for newspapers to report only good news or to report news only through the optimist`s looking glass. Newspapers have a duty to report all the news. It is just to point that the local newspaper is much more that a “mere journal,” as my reporter friend labeled it. Newspapers can have a profound positive influence on a community.

Phil Hardwick`s column on Mississippi business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.


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