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Guest commentary

A journalist on journalism

Special to the Record

My journalism addiction developed long ago — when I was the reporter for my 4-H club. Being the editor of my high school newspaper followed. Then I majored in journalism at Kansas State University and worked on the K-State Collegian, the student newspaper. The addiction blossomed when I was a reporter and co-manager of a twice-weekly English-language newspaper in Costa Rica. A similar job nudged it along at a weekly newspaper in Kansas.

Although I recently retired after nearly 40 years as a journalism professor, I’m continuing my weekly online column, “Kansas Snapshots,” which is in its 20th year. A book I co-authored came out two months ago. I will carry on with history-related features for local newspapers, and other writing projects beckon.

But researching and gathering information about subjects takes as much or more of my time as writing about them does. So, I’m an avid reader/listener/viewer of sources, such as online sites, National Public Radio, the BBC, network television, and magazines such as the Smithsonian and THE WEEK. Interviewing is also a common activity. Since much of my work has a regional focus, I subscribe to three area newspapers — the Riley Countian, the Manhattan Mercury and my hometown paper — the Marion County Record.

My work now is fairly noncontroversial, but this isn’t so for many journalists. Not all information published is going to please consumers. Cases of “killing the messenger” can be dated back to Roman times and still happen today — mostly metaphorically, but sometimes in actuality. Recently, journalists who do not deliver the desired message have been sometimes labeled “the enemy of the people.”

Nothing is perfect, and journalism has problems just as any profession does. But I have met colleagues who have worked for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News, the Kansas City Star, local radio stations, local dailies, small-town weeklies, and college and high school publications, to name a few. While a small number of people in journalism are seduced by the spotlight, it has been my experience that the great majority love the process of gathering information and sharing a story, yet have no interest in shaping it for some dark purpose. Journalism is not about the journalist.

Writers, editors, reporters, photographers, print shop workers, mail carriers, delivery people, producers, camera operators and others all play roles in providing timely and accurate information to balance the effects of those who wear the trappings of the profession, but are really just entertainers and provocateurs. The true journalist shows the best and worst of us, makes us laugh and cry, monitors all levels of government, and tries to keep elected officials “honest.”

New technology has been a great disruptor. With more options available to the advertiser, most media companies receive a smaller portion of the advertising dollar than they once did. And what they do get fluctuates wildly as advertisers search for the medium that delivers the greatest return.

This situation has led to changes such as the one Eric Meyer, the editor and publisher of the Marion County Record, made. He decided to combine his three newspapers into a single larger one. I’m sure it upset many subscribers, but the new paper still has great coverage of the county commission, local schools and the lives of local people.

Ned Seaton, editor and publisher of the Mercury, made the difficult decision to cut back on his newspaper’s print editions. Now, rather than one online issue and five print editions delivered by carriers, the Mercury publishes three online issues and three print editions delivered by mail.

His recent opinion piece, “Thanks for your heartening messages,” summed up his rationale and his plea to readers to keep supporting his product:

“These are certainly tough times in our business, due to the loss of advertising revenue over the years as national ad agencies shift their budgets to the digital giants Facebook and Google, and classified ads evaporate into Craigslist and other online forms. The pandemic also has hit us extremely hard as shuttered local businesses have no need to advertise.”

Seaton said expressions of support in this moment of transition are “so heartening.” He said: Without journalists, people “would have to rely on the government itself to tell you what it wants you to know. Either that, or you’d have to rely on whatever it is that what’s-his-name says on Facebook.”

Indeed, we rely on journalists to share what is happening at the national and international levels — COVID-19 numbers, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and the inspiring words of 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman on Inauguration Day.

On a local level, I recently read a lovely memorial tribute to two local artists — stained-glass master Maurice Berggren and wood carver Wayne VanSickle — written by Countian editor Donna Sullivan. She wrote, “It’s a longing of most human hearts to leave behind something when their life is over; a lasting legacy that reflects their days on this earth. ...”

A “70 years ago” item in the “Memories” section of the Record made me smile: “Residents in several homes south of Hillsboro have been made especially happy when their long vigil for electricity came to an end this week when the REA [Rural Electrification Administration] finally made it to their community.”

Editorials serve to frame certain issues and make us think but will inevitably irritate some.

Seaton said: “One of the unpleasant aspects of writing opinion columns for the newspaper is that eventually, you make everybody mad. It’s unpleasant for me anyway; I suppose some might revel in it. I’ve grown a thick skin. So, while it’s not pleasant to get screamed at, it usually doesn’t bother me much.”

Journalism plays a vital role. It helps keep us informed as citizens of the world. So, count me among those who say to them, “Thank you for all you do.”

Gloria Freeland is an emeritus professor in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University. She also ran this piece in her Jan. 29 online column, “Kansas Snapshots.”

Last modified Feb. 4, 2021

 

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