The local newspaper occupies a special place in the community

As I mentioned on Wednesday, Oct. 1-7 is National Newspaper Week in Canada and the theme is “Newspapers Matter. Now more Than Ever.”

Of course, we would say that because this is not just our livelihood but our passion as well. The “local paper” has undergone a lot of changes in recent years as the digital sphere asserts itself more and more into our economy, lifestyle, education, politics and more. Stuck in the middle of this whirlwind of change is the your humble community newspaper.

The week is designed to draw attention to what we do for the community with the hopes of convincing you that newspapers do, indeed, matter. Not everybody will agree with that.

But I hope I established in Wednesday’s column that we do indeed do things that are of a benefit to the community.

We followed that concept in today’s paper where we talked to local leaders and community activists and got their opinion on the premise that local news matters (See pages 17 and 18). And their words are greatly appreciated.

As things change and our audience – particularly our younger audience – has less familiarity with what a newspaper is all about, we notice a growing misunderstanding of some of the elements in reporting.

One of the biggest areas of misunderstanding nowadays is bias and the difference between news reporting and opinion writing.

Often a story is viewed or perceived as something the newspaper says.

But a newspaper story is about what people important to the issue said, not what the reporter or the newspaper itself said. That’s a big issue in my mind and is a big source of misunderstanding of newspapers and news (and broadcast news for that matter, too).

If you read a story closely, you see that the newspaper didn’t say “blah, blah, blah,” the newspaper will quote the source of the statement – i.e., the mayor said, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’” not the newspaper.

There are two places where the newspaper and/or its staff actually make a statement and you’re currently looking at the page where that happens. It’s the opinion page. Or if you’re reading this on our website, it’s under the Opinion section.

The editorial, usually seen in the top left corner of this page, is ostensibly a statement from the paper. It’s either written by the editor or his designate (read: reporter) or it’s picked up from a sister publication (i.e., owned by the same company). That’s where you see the paper’s opinion, theoretically. But it would be wrong to assume that even that is the opinion of the owner of the paper (David Black, in our case).

The owner does not peruse and approve every editorial written in his publications. He leaves that to his paid staff. It’s safe to assume that David Black does not agree with every editorial written in his publications.

The other place where the words written are from the newspaper’s staff is in this very type of writing you’re consuming (enjoying?) right now – a column. Columns are written from a personal point of view and are written in the first person. This is my opinion.

Unlike editorials, columns are not necessarily representative of the ownership or staff of the paper. They’re the columnist’s opinion.

In both pieces of opinion, the reader has a right to expect fair and informed writing. But it is opinion and is labelled as such. We recently had a comment on one our columnists’ pieces – Tom Fletcher – that slammed it as biased. But of course it was biased, it was a column, an opinion piece.

And the point being made here is that when consuming a media product, you need to be fully aware of what you are reading.

Is it a news story? Is it an editorial? Is it a column? Is it an opinion piece or a piece of reporting? What are the sources? Who is being quoted?

And remember, just because a news story says that the mayor (this a hypothetical example, by the way) wants Campbell River to raise its taxes by 20 per cent, it does not mean the Campbell River Mirror wants to do that. We’re simply reporting what the news source says. It’s important that you be aware of that. Certainly, we’re bringing you the bad news but we didn’t make it or tell the mayor to do it.

We’re the messenger. We’re the medium whereby that information is coming to you.

Another topic to touch on is that of errors. There are two kinds of errors: errors of fact and typographic errors. Both of them happen. We wish they didn’t. Believe me, nothing irritates me more than to see an error that I or somebody else let slip by.

Errors of fact in reporting are mistakes and they happen for many reasons but they happen. Our commitment is to correct them as quickly as possible and if it was our mistake, apologize for making it.

Typographic errors also happen and it surprises us as much as anybody how they get made. It is irritating to read a mistake, I know, I feel it too when I read a novel or a national magazine with a mistake in it.

Often readers say in an irritated tone, “how could you make such a mistake?” Well, it’s actually very easy. We’re frequently rushing to meet a deadline, we’re juggling many responsibilities at once and find it hard to slow down enough to scrutinize something. Writing that one headline is not our only task that day. We’re processing photos, editing videos, writing 5-10 stories per publication, we’re producing content for special publication projects, dealing with the public, giving away tickets, fielding phone calls about rumours, and more.

The occasional typo gets missed. It’s annoying but we console ourselves with the idea that yes, we got five words wrong in this issue, how many words did we get right? Five to 10 thousand?

We endeavour to be typo-free but I don’t know how realistic it is to expect that. So, we’re asking to be cut a little slack. Or not, it’s up to you. But does a typo change the facts? No. It doesn’t change anything. The gist of the story is still the same and maybe the point is to focus on what the story is. Don’t lose sight of the fact that your taxes are going up when an annoying misspelling shows up.

I mentioned on Wednesday that a newspaper is often a partnership between a private business and the public and its needs. People sometimes think we’re like a publicly-funded company like the CBC. We’re not, this is a private enterprise, but one that enjoys a special relationship with its customers, if that’s the right word. This is a business unlike any other.

Thank-you for your support and for your indulgence and lattitude.

Meanwhile, I now have to spellcheck this column.

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