Just so no one has any doubts whatsoever about where I'm coming from, I'd like to note that The News-Sentinel has a pretty strict profanity policy. Because this blog is affiliated with The News-Sentinel, I follow that policy here. However, if I were writing completely in my own style solely on my own terms, this post would be filled with language so foul it would make a drunken sailor cover his ears. I feel like cussin.' Got that?
I would like to remind my fellow bloggers of something those of us on the print side have had to live with for a long time: You can spend a lifetime building and nurturing a reputation for thoughtfulness and thoroughness and fairness. But you can destroy that same reputation in a heartbeat, with one instance of shoddy, irresponsible reporting. There is a poisonous pile of shoddy, irresponsible reporting polluting the electronic atmosphere right now, and it is about The News-Sentinel. This is not "a company" being victimized. Real people work there, including me.
Here is one of the things going on at the newspaper these days: We are having a series of meetings -- small groups, led by Executive Editor Linda Austin -- to talk about what the future might hold for us. The idea is to have lively discussions to get the best ideas from all staff members. What use will we make of the Internet? How can we make the best use of our information-gathering capabilities? How will we integrate the print product with all the other technologies we need to be experimenting with? What will that print product look like? These are the same kinds of conversations going on in newsrooms across the country. That should not be a surprising fact about a mature industry in a changing world.
These meetings have been confidential -- or at least they are supposed to be confidential; this is our future we're talking about, after all, so it's our business. But if word of them leaked out and they became the centerpiece of speculation about the future of The News-Sentinel, fine. That's legitimate analysis, even if it includes facts about the struggles of an afternoon daily in a morning-newspaper world we'd just as soon not talk about.
But that's not how those meetings are being reported. Somehow, brainstorming sessions attempting to envision our future have been transformed, in some people's fantasy world, into a concrete plan to kill the print edition and go all online in two years. Let's start with this hit piece by Derrick Gingery on the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly's Web site. There was an earlier version that actually led off with the blatant falsehood -- The News-Sentinel you know is going away in two years -- with Publisher Mary Jacobus' flatout denial tacked on at the bottom of the story. This tamer version is an obvious attempt to back off from a bad story (because It. Just. Is. Not. True.), but the impression created by it is still that: 1) There is such a plan, 2) a few brave News-Sentinel staffers are trying to get the word out on it, anonymously of course, for fear of being fired and, 3) the executive editor and publisher are not being truthful about it.
That's certainly the impression picked up by Nathan Gotsch on his blog, who comes right out and says:
But the newsroom is a leaky vessel, and very detailed accounts of the so-called non-existent plan are being openly discussed. While the implementation of the plan is far from a done deal, it very much exists, which means that Austin and Jacobus both lied to Gingery -- a fellow journalist.
What are the ethics of that?
That "lying" accusation is picked up by several people who comment on Nathan's post, anonymously, of course. The "so-called non-existent plan"? Nathan, it's time for a gut check. Lying is one of the most serious accusations you can level at somebody. You'd better start thinking about backing up that accusation or apologizing for it. Better still, I make you this offer: You give me the names of any people who are telling you that this "so-called non-existent plan" actually exists, and I will call them liars to their face. You are throwing out nonsense you cannot possible justify, which can hurt real people. What are the ethics of that?
That brings us to former State Rep. Mitch Harper, who references the "issue" on his blog, throwing in the wild speculation that the massive investment being made on a new press for Fort Wayne Newspapers is actually part of a Knight-Ridder plot to make us "sale worthy." (Saying "some observers had wondered," by the way, does not disguise the fact that you're just tossing out wild rumors.) He also offerers a hint that the publishers of the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly might be thinking about starting a daily newspaper. If so, I hope their basic commitment to the plain truth becomes just a little stronger. Mitch also managed to get a copy of a letter from Knight Ridder Chairman Tony Ridder to employees. By headlining it "More on what may be in store at News-Sentinel," he manages to make it sound like part of this nefarious two-year plan. But if you read it, you realize it's about supporting the same kind of what-if discussions we've been having.
What else? The story has been picked up by WANE-TV, the business weekly's "business partner," it is on the Web site of Romenesko, read by journalists around the country, we have gotten calls from Editor & Publisher, the Detroit News and I don't know who else. Nancy Nall, a former staffer who did some great work here but is bitter about her last few years, lets that bitterness get the better of her and jumps in when she should know better. If she really does care about the paper and the people who still work there, she shouldn't speed along the demise by helping spread rumors disguised as real information.
So now we have to slow down from putting out a newspaper to try to stamp out this malicious -- I know of no better word -- nonsense. The worse part is that it will be harder for us to have a robust conversation about the newspaper's future, which I hope some people still care about, for fear that some of these "brave insiders" might twist what is said and spread it all over creation.
THERE. IS. NO. PLAN. If you can't deal with that plain truth, then just shut the hell up.