Category Archives: Features

Community newspapers surviving – and thriving

Twenty-nine years ago the Woodstock Sentinel, the daily newspaper in Woodstock, Illinois, merged with another daily, leaving the city of 25,000 an hour north of Chicago without its own newspaper.

At the time, Cheryl Wormley and a friend worked for the local school district. Neither had any journalism experience.

Still, they quit their jobs, took second mortgages on their homes and launched a weekly newspaper, the Woodstock Independent, in April 1987.

“We were accidental journalists,’’ said Wormley, the paper’s publisher and co-owner. “We had had a daily here for 100-plus years and felt we needed our own newspaper. The door opened and we walked through it.’’

For its coverage of the community in 2014, the Independent won the David Kramer Memorial Trophy from the Illinois Press Association this year after receiving the most top awards in its category. For the past several years, the IPA’s winners have contained numerous entries from the Independent

Where a daily failed, a weekly succeeded. And across the country, the story of the Independent follows a pattern repeated by community weekly newspapers: They not only survive but thrive.

While the constant retreat of large daily newspapers in coverage, content and circulation creates a belief that newspapers no longer matter and journalism is dying, community papers continue to be a solid presence in their communities.

“Community papers are healthier than metro papers,’’ said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “They have a narrower mission, to provide local news and in most markets no one is challenging that franchise. A greater share of them (38 percent) are independently owned (compared to 20 percent of dailies.) In most cases their staffs have networks that reach broadly and deeply into the communities they serve.’’

Cross said the problems with large newspapers tarnish the image of the industry overall. “Many in the general public and even in the media business believe newspapers are in worse shape than they are. That has probably made more difficult community papers’ selling job.’’

In a 2010 study, the National Newspaper Association found that the 7,000-plus non-daily newspapers in the United States have a combined circulation of 65.5 million compared to 45.5 million for the then-1,408 daily newspapers. About 70 percent of those non-dailies have a circulation under 15,000.

Wormley’s paper has 3,000 subscribers. Combining that with 5,000 connections through Facebook and a monthly newspaper published for a nearby town, total market penetration is close to 16,000, she said. In 2005 she and her son bought out the other original co-owner.

Most of her staff lives in the community, she said. “We’re a variety of ages,’’ Wormley said, noting that a longtime columnist, Don Peasley, known as Mr. Woodstock, had written and photographed his community for newspapers since 1947. He worked for the Independent up to his death last year at the age of 90.

Wormley credits the Independent’s first hire, a journalism graduate with two years’ experience at a weekly, as guiding the neophytes through the early years. “She was our first reporter/editor,’’ Wormley said. “She held our toes to the fire. She was strict about attribution and accuracy.’’

Also, the timing of the enterprise helped, she said. “We started this just when computers were starting. We were ahead of the curve because we didn’t have to transition from any other system or retrain people.’’

She joined NNA, the Illinois Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. “I’ve found newspaper people, at least at this level, to be very sharing. We learned a lot from others.’’ Over the years, the Independent’s editorial voice has grown stronger, she said. “I think if you ask readers, they would say we’ve established ourselves as a paper for the people.’’

Tonda Rush, executive director of NNA, said daily newspapers sometimes falsely sound the death knell for all of journalism. “It’s so frustrating to have readers believe we’ve died or are dying, particularly when they read it in newspapers,’’ Rush said.

“Community newspapers are not as visible on the national scene,’’ Rush said. “But come on, guys, don’t take us down with you.’’

Rush outlined why community papers have not felt the same financial woes as have dailies, especially after the recession that began eight years ago:

  • Large group-owned newspapers faced a credit crunch for significant debt. For the most part, community family-owned or independent papers do not get that heavily into debt, she said. “Right off the bat the recession was different for our guys.”
  • Revenue streams that large papers relied on dried up, but did not have the same effect on small papers. “They tend not to have a lot of department-store advertising. Their retail is all local or mom-and-pop inserts.’’
  • Classified advertising, which found a new and free home on such Internet sites as craigslist, does not contribute as much to the revenue picture for small papers, Rush said. “Weeklies tend to run garage sale ads,’’ she said. “The digital disruption was not as devastating a blow as it was to larger papers.’’
  • The federal bailout for the big-three auto makers caused car dealerships to close or consolidate. “That had a big effect on large papers,’’ she said. “Not so much for small ones.’’
  • Consolidation of national banks also cut advertising from large papers. “In small communities the bank is often locally owned.’’

This is not to say community papers went through the recession untouched. “It was a good time to have local staffers who did not fight cost controls to keep their papers going,’’ she said. In 2013 publishers started to see the upturn, Rush said. Their papers also had to deal with a new form of competition.

The downsizing of large papers caused many unemployed journalists to hit the Internet to provide local news, sometimes competing with community papers. “No one found a model to make digital journalism operations self-sustaining,’’ Rush said. “They tend to last as long as the severance check does.’’

One looming issue for community papers, whose subscribers for the most part receive their paper through the mail, is the ongoing financial troubles of the U.S. Postal Service. “More and more the postal service is having trouble getting papers delivered on time. Weekly papers are sometimes arriving bundled with three or four issues at once. We’ve been lobbying Congress to make this a legislative issue to address.’’

NNA postal consultant Max Heath said community newspapers provide a valuable avenue of commerce for local businesses. “There is still a good bit of auto and real estate still in community newspapers, especially when compared to metros,’’ he said.

Bill Miller Jr., general manager of the Washington Missourian, represents the third generation of his family to run the twice-weekly publication. His grandfather, James Miller Sr., started the paper and his father, Bill Miller Sr., serves as editor and publisher.

The Missourian Publishing Co. includes three other weekly papers, a magazine and a commercial print operation. “We have about 120 employees with part-timers,’’ Miller said.

About an hour outside of St. Louis, the coverage area has seen significant growth, he said. That allowed the company to expand in 2008 and purchase a new press. Still, when it comes to what goes in the paper, the Millers point to their founder. “We run a lot of pictures and cover local events,’’ Miller said. “It’s similar to how my grandfather did it. The formula has not changed much. We’re still a viable part of the community.’’

While some chain-owned newspapers define themselves as hyper-local, Miller refuses to use that term. “We just cover the community,’’ he said. “That perception of going local comes from dailies. It’s what we’ve always done.’’

A few years ago the local school district surveyed people on how they learned news about their schools. “Over 90 percent said it was by reading the Missourian,’’ Miller said.

The Missourian still employs proofreaders and Miller’s father, Bill Miller Sr., 85, checks every press run. “We’re doing things we used to do 20, 30 years ago because we were doing it right then and it still works,’’ Miller said.

Tim Lyke, publisher of the Ripon Commonwealth Press in Wisconsin, also follows a trusted family formula. He came home in 1990 when his dad called to see if he wanted to join the family business. His parents purchased the Press in 1962.

He takes exception to the gloom and doom stories about newspapers and journalism. “The large papers forgot what brought us to the dance,’’ Lyke said. “Let’s pay attention to the product. They are so focused on cutting costs they do so at the expense of readers by providing less product. That causes them to lose even more readers, who find there is not enough content to make it worth their while. It’s a death spiral, but we are not part of it.”

His reporters shoot their own photos for stories and his editor writes a weekly column. He and the editor update the paper’s Facebook page each day; the Press just launched its first Twitter account. “We are aggressive in providing news as it happens,’’ he said. “The editor and I are each in a service club.’’

Paid subscribers receive an electronic newsletter the day before publication. “It gives them excerpts of stories before it hits the streets,’’ he said. The paper still prints weddings and engagements free of charge.

“Those are reasons people buy the paper,’’ Lyke said. “It’s their keepsake.’’

Bill Miller Sr., editor and publisher of the Missourian, said that sort of coverage sneered at by large dailies will drive the growth of community papers. “People are starting to realize we are the only ones who cover local news,’’ Miller Sr., said. “Patch and some of the web upstarts are not surviving.’’

At the Eldon Advertiser in Eldon, Missouri, the Vernon family has owned the weekly since 1948. Publisher Trevor Vernon represents the third generation of his family to run the Advertiser. Vernon Publishing owns five weekly newspapers in Missouri. “We like to say we only print stories with local ties,’’ Vernon said. “We also live by ‘everyone has a story’. At times we have randomly sent reporters to sit in restaurants, street corners and had them talk to the next person who came by.’’

About 10 years ago the Advertiser tried a website where all content was available. “Our subscriptions took a hit and people were telling us, ‘Thank you for putting all your content on the web for free, now I don’t have to buy a newspaper.’ We stopped doing that immediately. We now put the first paragraph for free and subscribers can read the rest,’’ Vernon said.

The Vernons illustrate one of the aspects of family owned community weeklies: working with family. Vernon works with his father, who is president of the company and publisher of three of the weeklies; his grandfather, though retired, goes to the post office and bank every day for the office.

“My father and I have a great relationship,’’ Vernon said. “At times employees say we resemble American Choppers, without throwing things at each other. We never take it personally and normally good ideas come from our conversations. We are both passionate about the communities we serve.’

For community newspapers without a family lineage, a new business model is finding success in eastern Iowa. The Cascade Pioneer, a community fixture since 1876, is owned by the Woodward Company. Pioneer Publisher Mary Ungs-Sogaard described Woodward as ‘the anti-Gannett’ — a company that is majority-owned, about 97 percent, by its 500 media employees. “It’s participatory management,’’ she said.

That arrangement allows for a number of efficiencies, such as sharing editors and reporters among her two papers. Ungs-Sogaard also serves as publisher of another Woodward-owned weekly paper in nearby Dyersville. Recently the Pioneer took home a number of awards from the Iowa Press Association’s annual contest for 2014 coverage. “Sharing resources makes it doable,’’ Ungs-Sogaard said. “The ROI on the place is tremendous and that is not typical.’’

During the recession, the company did not lay anyone off, she said. “We didn’t always hire at the full-time level or replace people, but we found other ways to save money.’’

Employees of a Woodward-owned newspaper – the company has five weekly newspapers along with a print division, six radio stations and the daily newspaper in Dubuque – become vested after five years. They accrue stock; shares have shown a consistent growth rate over the years.

“It’s false to say newspapers can’t make a profit,’’ Ungs-Sogaard said. “We have open- book management and everybody has a stake in making the business profitable.’’

Cascade and Dyersville share news and sports editors and aspects of production. Between the two papers 25 people are employed.

Publishers and newspaper association directors repeatedly said the health of community papers reflects that of their community. Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said he is worried more about the future of Main Street America than he is about weekly newspapers.

“As more everyday purchases are made via the Internet, community brick-and-mortar businesses will come under more pressure,’’ Crews said. “Local communities’ tax bases will suffer and city and county services will suffer. Main Street businesses in some towns are being challenged economically today.’’

If Main Street is doing well in a community, generally so is the local newspaper, he said. “Weeklies have always been able to weather the economic storms better than larger newspapers. The smaller newspapers simply have learned to operate in a smaller universe, so their highs are not as high, their lows are not as low, as larger newspapers.” Plus, despite what has been reported, people want to read an ink-on-paper edition, Crews said. “They still want to clip out the photos and local news items and the cheese cake recipe – refrigerator journalism.’’

Weekly newspapers need to pay better attention to their penetration rates rather than just circulation, Cross said. “This data will be used against them by one of the industry’s main adversaries, local governments that are asking state legislatures to repeal or reduce the requirements for public-notice advertising.” Such advertising, known as legals, accounts for about 8 percent of a community newspaper’s revenue, but can go as high as 20 percent, Cross said.

Another problem for rural newspapers is their inability to pay salaries that attract qualified journalists, Cross said. “When we surveyed rural weeklies eight years ago, the average starting salary for a beginning reporter with a bachelor’s degree was only $21,000.’’

He also mentioned the connection to a strong business community. “Many rural communities are in economic distress or are losing population to the extent they can no longer support a newspaper focused only on their community.’’

Cannon Falls, Minnesota, population 4,000, has seen its downtown suffer as people choose to take the 35-mile drive north to the Twin Cities to spend their money. Mike Dalton, editor of the Cannon Falls Beacon, said the paper has lost about 1,000 subscribers in the last 10 to 15 years. “I wish I knew why,’’ Dalton said. “We’ve also seen our average weekly page count drop from 22 or 24 down to 18. Part of that happened when we started doing a better job paginating, but at the same time advertising went down so we cut down on our news coverage.’’

Some of the other changes for the Beacon include dropping some coverage of events that have been staples for the past couple of decades and reducing picture sizes. “We don’t cover as many meetings as we used to; we used to hit all the surrounding townships but we’ve gone to just the three or four larger ones,’’ Dalton said.

Dalton is also a director with the Minnesota Press Association. “Weekly newspapers statewide are struggling right now. Our Main Streets are drying up, which means we don’t always have a strong ad base. But at the same time, I haven’t heard too many publishers/editors who are giving up. The consensus seems to be that community newspapers will survive, while some of the mid-size dailies might not make it,’’ he said.

Local coverage that cannot be found elsewhere remains the golden ticket for readership. “There will always be a market for a newspaper like ours, where you can learn about the bake sale and who got arrested in the same issue,’’ Dalton added.

PEOPLE magazine at 40: Paparazzi in print

1974 was not a good year for America. Historians depict a country exhausted from 15 years of public stress. They see the after-effects of more than a decade of social and political conflict over civil rights, equality for women, the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War, as well as the lingering and devastating effects of three assassinations in the 1960s. The resolution of the Watergate scandal, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon, brought a “sense of weary relief,” in the words of historian John Morton Blum.  It also brought a desire to retreat from engagement in public issues to the cultivation of private lives. The time was ripe for PEOPLE magazine.

The first issue appeared on March 4. It was, as the editors noted, the first launch of a national magazine in 20 years, since Sports Illustrated in 1954. In an introductory note to that first issue the editors did not talk about how their publication might propel the advance of the rising “celebrity-gossip-scandal” journalism and contribute to the decline of “general interest” publications (think of LIFE, Look and Collier’s). Their goals were more modest.

“Journalism has, of course, always noted and dealt with people,” they wrote, “but we dedicate our entire editorial content to that pursuit.” The American people were ready and eager to get away from issues and conflict about them to the “up close and personal” approach television was pursuing. Ideas, history and social, political and economic matters could remain the province of those pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals in Washington and on campuses.

But what kinds of people would PEOPLE reveal to us? The “doers, headliners, stars and comers.”  Or, as the editors said, “the above average, the important, the charismatic, the singular.” The average Americans, the “folks” in flyover land wanted to read about them, the publisher bet, and and the publisher turned out to be right. Circulation remained strong in 2013 at 3.5 million, ranking PEOPLE in 12th place among magazines. Reader’s Digest was the only other magazine in the top dozen directed at general readers.

The editors also promised “never to be cruel or awestruck or gushy.” To translate that, they promised to be bland and inoffensive. In the first issue they mostly succeeded.

The cover story on March 4, 1974, featured Mia Farrow at 29, about to dazzle audiences in “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford in the title role. Readers discovered that Farrow “in real life is not at all like Daisy (Buchanan),” the character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel on which the movie is based. “With Mia everything is family…She’s really a loving, caring person, not like those old selfish movie stars caring only about themselves.”

Farrow may well be a caring and selfless mom, but why lambast movie vixens of old such as Betty Davis and Barbara Stanwyck? They may not have been embodiments of family values, but they sure could act.  And Farrow? As Roger Ebert (no highbrow critic in some cinematography journal) put it: “…we cannot understand what’s so special about Daisy Buchanan. Not as she’s played by Ms. Farrow, all squeaks and narcissism and empty sophistication.”

PEOPLE couldn’t help being gushy and awestruck before Hollywood’s gods and goddesses, editorial vows notwithstanding. That came through again in another story of the first issue, one about William Peter Blatty, writer and producer of “The Exorcist,” one of the 1973’s blockbusters.  He is quoted as dismissing criticism from New York Times critic Vincent Canby (who called the movie “elegant claptrap”) and the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael: “They belong to a very small set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their own ego that the world outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function.”

The PEOPLE reporters did not enter Blatty’s verbal squirrel cage to interpret, and who can blame them? The best comment on the movie came from the manager of a theater in which it played: “My janitors are going bananas wiping up the vomit.” That helps explain all that talk about how much a movie grossed.

The rest of the issue is pleasantly bland and blandly pleasant. Movie gossip columnist Sheila Graham, recently transplanted to Palm Beach, informed readers that her new home town was “the richest and snottiest Place to be Seen” and that in comparison to Hollywood, a “working town,” it was dull. But at least “there are no slums in Palm Beach.”

There’s an interview with Marina Oswald, widow of JFK’s assassin. It’s Psychology Today Lite, but at least it quotes her as wondering if Lee Harvey Oswald “brought all this down on America.” The closest the first issue comes to insight into the people it covered is the homespun, cracker barrel “makes you kind of wonder” comment Marina Oswald tossed to her interviewers.

In the first decade after PEOPLE’s debut two things happened to American journalism. Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, summarized the first in 1985: “Call it what you want – gossip journalism, celebrity journalism, human-interest journalism. By any name, this has become the dominant theme in journalism.”

David Sumner, professor of journalism at Ball State University and often called “Professor Magazine,”(he’s author of “The Magazine Century:  American Magazines Since 1900”) identified the second dominant theme, a “general decline in the intellectual level of magazine content.” Both themes emerge with relentless clarity from a viewing of the June 16, 2014 issue of PEOPLE.

The content consisted mostly of pictures and snippets of text. Gone was the pretext the people depicted might be, as suggested in 1974, “above average, charismatic or singular.” A few may be important to their families and friends. Take this example. An entire page (p. 28) was devoted to the photo of a chubby young man who turned out to be Rob Kardashian, a “TV personality, business man and model, best known for appearing on reality television shows that center upon his family,” (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”).

“It’s a family that “prides themselves (sic) on looking absolutely fabulous,” an insider revealed to another publication [which? Looks like maybe it was Hollywood Life?], and poor Rob obviously failed to live up to his fabulous potential.

The rest of the pictures showed us many more people such as Rob. There was a full page devoted to things these people said:

  • “If I’m in a bathing suit, I should pose proudly.” — Jessica Simpson
  • “I looked down and the nutter was trying to bury his face in my crotch, so I cracked him twice in the back of the head.” — Brad Pitt
  • “There’s a Twitter account called @JessicaBielArms.  Should my ass be offended?” — Jessica Biel

Wittier comments used to be found written on the walls in junior high school boys’ rooms.

The cover story, an interview with Hillary Clinton, makes a stab at journalism. The former First Lady and secretary of state and perceived front runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination answered questions, but her answers lead to few follow-up questions her comments should have provoked.

When asked about what she discusses with those who see her as the best hope for a female president, she replied: “I don’t think the most important questions are ‘Are you going to run?’ and ‘Can you win?’” I’m not having those conversations. The important questions are ‘What’s your vision for America?’ and ‘Do you think you can lead our country there?’”

About Monica Lewinsky: Hillary Clinton has “moved on.” We should too, the presidential hopeful tells us: “I think everybody needs to look to the future.”  There’s not a word about fixing the present.

Asking questions is what journalists do. PEOPLE today is a mix of supermarket tabloid, movie fan magazine and gossip column. It does public relations work for the “stars” and wannabe stars, the very rich and occasionally for a mover and shaker in Washington.

Paul Fussell, author of “The Great War and Modern Memory,” summed up what the magazine represents: “It is the function of a bad magazine like PEOPLE to encourage readers to admire and envy shallow show-business celebrities and various stupid freaks of curious achievements…”

And that raises a question not likely to get discussed around the water cooler: Do magazines such as PEOPLE shape or mirror society?

 

Alton Telegraph newsroom evokes fond memories

Slambrouck - Alton Daily Telegraph copyEditor’s note: This is a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

I fell in love with the Alton Telegraph newsroom. Who wouldn’t, with its dangling cables, stacks of yellowing newsprint, reference books – that’s right, BOOKS – on cabinets with wheels and reporters’ desks adorned with the bric-a-brac from years of school-board meetings, election nights and city council debates?

Founded in 1836, the Telegraph would watch journalistic history come to this Mississippi River town. Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy moved his newspaper from St. Louis to Alton, where he expected less opposition to his views. Instead, he and his Alton Observer became targets and he was slain by a mob of anti-abolitionists.

Today’s Telegraph editor, Dan Brannan, seated at his desk, let me wander for an hour to take these photographs. I couldn’t help but feel the Telegraph’s struggle to survive. Now owned by Civitas, its news staff has dwindled to a handful and its print circulation has declined.

Whatever the future holds, newsrooms like this have an ambience not found in the more sanitized digital-news offices of today. Their struggles to survive make their gun-metal gray furniture and abandoned Styrofoam coffee cups all the more appealing – at least to anyone who once sat at desks like these, wheeled backward on squeaky chairs and fiddled with a tangled phone chord while scribbling notes for the next day’s story.

Monumental muckups memorialized

When former New York Times Executive Editor Abraham “A.M.” Rosenthal died in May 2006, his obituary lauded his numerous accomplishments during his 56 years at the newspaper.

He had won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting and led the paper through coverage of the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers. He also was credited as initiating the now industry standard practice of running corrections in a fixed spot for readers to find. The New York Times chose Page 2 for its corrections, and many newspapers followed. He and the Times began the practice in 1972.

It is perhaps then both ironic and a tribute to Rosenthal’s insistence on accuracy that his own obituary needed a correction the next day in the paper’s main competitor. The Washington Post’s obituary remarked on Rosenthal’s rela­tionship with the late NYT publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Sulzberger, who died last year, was very much alive at the time of Rosenthal’s passing.

Other corrections have endured to become classics in newspaper lore and beyond:

• Once the New York Times jumped into the business of running correc­tions each day on Page 2, the “Corrections” column quickly became a must-read. No detail was too trivial to escape correcting in the name of accuracy. One of the more famous ones ran in April 1981: “An article about decorative cook­ing incorrectly described a presentation of Muscovy duck by Michael Fitoussi, a New York chef. In preparing it, Mr. Fitoussi uses a duck that has been killed.” The correction became the title of the book “Kill Duck Before Serving,” pub­lished in 2002. It is a collection of some of the more unusual corrections to run in the New York Times.

• In July 2004, the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader ran a Page 1 correction apologizing for failing to cover the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It led off a package of stories on the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

• In 1987, advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, a.k.a. “Dear Abby,” offered advice to an Iowa farmer who had been hiccupping nonstop for 65 years. She said the man found temporary relief through “carbon monoxide.” The next day she corrected that to “carbon dioxide.”

• In May 2008, the Washington Post misspelled the 1987 winning word – “serrefine” – in an article about that year’s National Spelling Bee.

• In a recent story, the San Diego (Calif.) Tribune, in a correction titled “Missing-dog story proved incorrect,” said that the paper “incorrectly reported that a guide dog owned by a blind 7-year-old boy was missing. The boy, Rob­ert Maurice, son of Lila Maurice of Ramona, is not blind, and the dog, which does not belong to the boy and is not a guide dog, has been found. The story was based on a police report and from information provided by a relative. The Tribune regrets the errors.”

Missouri Senate narrowly blocks controversial veto

The Missouri Senate fell one vote short of overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have made it a crime to print the name of a person who owned a gun.

The bill also would have made it a crime for Missouri law enforcement officials to enforce federal gun laws thought to violate the Second Amendment.

 

Two top Republican leaders of the Missouri Senate joined with Democrats to block the bill after the House had voted to override Nixon’s veto.

The press portion of the bill was written so broadly that it literally would have made it a crime to print Gov. Nixon’s name.

In other words, it would not only have been a crime to say Nixon was a gun owner, but it also would have been a crime to print Nixon’s name in any context because no gun owner’s name could be published.

The Missouri Press Association had threatened to go to court to seek to enjoin the law if it had been enacted.

One side benefit for Nixon, who is interested in a presidential run in 2016, was that he got some favorable ink in The New York Times.  Before now, Nixon hasn’t attracted much national attention.

St. Louis Public Radio, St. Louis Beacon announce intent to explore journalism alliance

St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon announced today their intention to explore forming an alliance to better serve the

community through journalism.

A letter of intent was signed by Margaret Wolf Freivogel, a founder and the editor of the St. Louis Beacon, and Tim Eby, St. Louis Public Radio general manager.

(William H. Freivogel, publisher of Gateway Journalism Review, is a former board member for the Beacon and is husband of Margaret Wolf Freivogel, Beacon editor.)

 

ABC News wonders ‘where’s the beef’ in recent lawsuit

Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series on the defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News. It looks at how media are covering the story.

Earlier this year, ABC News aired a news segment exposing th

e manner in which Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) is produced by Beef Products Inc. The story, which was designed to educate consumers about the ammonia gas treatment LFTB receives as part of the production process, questioned the safety of the meat product.

Food production and safety issues have become news staples in the past few years. Major television networks, such as ABC News, as well as independent websites and bloggers, have produced multiple stories in an effort to educate consumers about the food on their plates. Now, however, ABC News is faced with a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit by BPI as a result of the news coverage.

Beef Products is seeking $400 million of compensatory damages representing lost profit, which could be tripled under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act. It also is seeking punitive damages.

“The lawsuit is without merit,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, in an article posted on ABC News’ website Sept. 13. He added: “We will contest it vigorously.”

After the initial ABC News report, other media picked up the story and ran with it. This has led several to ask the question, “Why is BPI only suing ABC News?”

A Reuters article by Jonathan Stempel on the suit emphasized the legal questions about the agricultural disparagement laws. It read:

Beef Products accused ABC News of acting with actual malice in producing its reports, a high legal standard to meet.

“These kinds of cases are hard to win, because courts have given media many protections in reporting on matters of public concern,” said Bruce Rosen, a partner and media law specialist at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli in Florham Park, N.J.

“Constitutionally, the plaintiff has to show ABC knew what it was broadcasting was false, or had very strong reasons to know and ignored them,” he said. “It’s a very hard standard to overcome. Dan Webb will have his hands full.”

Many media reports also are questioning the constitutionality of the South Dakota law that allowed the suit to be filed. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have agriculture disparagement laws, which allow agriculture producers to file suit against media and individuals.

Most news articles about the lawsuit, such as the Wall Street Journal article “ABC Sued for ‘Pink Slime’ Defamation,” cite attorneys and First Amendment experts who state BPI will have a hard time winning this case.

“The U.S. places great importance on free speech and the value of open public debate,” said Neil Hamilton, a Drake University professor and director of the Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines, Iowa, in a Huffington Post article. “A jury may have a very difficult time finding the news stories involved here were defamatory, or that there was any intent to harm the company.”

Blogs and watchdog websites have gone further than doubting BPI’s success with the lawsuit. They have directly questioned the validity of the agriculture disparagement laws.

“These laws are a direct threat to the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment,” wrote Carli Dolieslager and Amber Knight in a 2010 article on the Project Censored: Media Democracy in Action website. “Under such food disparagement laws, mass media and individual citizens would lose their right to inform – and to be informed.”

“It’s terrifying,” added David Bederman, an Emory University law professor who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Georgia’s disparagement law and has published multiple articles questioning the legality of “veggie libel” laws.

Meat industry media, including Beef Magazine, have published articles criticizing the ABC News coverage of LFTB and supporting BPI’s lawsuit. But even these articles begrudgingly acknowledge the unlikely success of the action.

“The legal hurdles for defamation are huge,” wrote Troy Marshall. “Obviously, the component of proving economic damage will be easy, and there certainly was a tremendous amount of incorrect material presented by ABC as well. But the sad fact is that when the media chooses to ignore facts and sensationalize a story, there’s little recourse for the aggrieved to take, even if a company, its employees, consumers and the public are injured in the process.”

Based on the news reports, BPI has a steep legal road to climb. The outcome could have long-lasting implications for media and free speech.

Part four will provide an in-depth look at agriculture disparagement laws.

Format

Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series on the defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News. It looks at how media are covering the story.
Earlier this year, ABC News aired a news segment exposing the manner in which Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) is produced by Beef Products Inc. The story, which was designed to educate consumers about the ammonia gas treatment LFTB receives as part of the production process, questioned the safety of the meat product.
Food production and safety issues have become news staples in the past few years. Major television networks, such as ABC News, as well as independent websites and bloggers, have produced multiple stories in an effort to educate consumers about the food on their plates. Now, however, ABC News is faced with a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit by BPI as a result of the news coverage.
Beef Products is seeking $400 million of compensatory damages representing lost profit, which could be tripled under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act. It also is seeking punitive damages.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, in an article posted on ABC News’ website Sept. 13. He added: “We will contest it vigorously.”
After the initial ABC News report, other media picked up the story and ran with it. This has led several to ask the question, “Why is BPI only suing ABC News?”
A Reuters article by Jonathan Stempel on the suit emphasized the legal questions about the agricultural disparagement laws. It read:
Beef Products accused ABC News of acting with actual malice in producing its reports, a high legal standard to meet.
“These kinds of cases are hard to win, because courts have given media many protections in reporting on matters of public concern,” said Bruce Rosen, a partner and media law specialist at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli in Florham Park, N.J.
“Constitutionally, the plaintiff has to show ABC knew what it was broadcasting was false, or had very strong reasons to know and ignored them,” he said. “It’s a very hard standard to overcome. Dan Webb will have his hands full.”
Many media reports also are questioning the constitutionality of the South Dakota law that allowed the suit to be filed. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have agriculture disparagement laws, which allow agriculture producers to file suit against media and individuals.
Most news articles about the lawsuit, such as the Wall Street Journal article “ABC Sued for ‘Pink Slime’ Defamation,” cite attorneys and First Amendment experts who state BPI will have a hard time winning this case.
“The U.S. places great importance on free speech and the value of open public debate,” said Neil Hamilton, a Drake University professor and director of the Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines, Iowa, in a Huffington Post article. “A jury may have a very difficult time finding the news stories involved here were defamatory, or that there was any intent to harm the company.”
Blogs and watchdog websites have gone further than doubting BPI’s success with the lawsuit. They have directly questioned the validity of the agriculture disparagement laws.
“These laws are a direct threat to the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment,” wrote Carli Dolieslager and Amber Knight in a 2010 article on the Project Censored: Media Democracy in Action website. “Under such food disparagement laws, mass media and individual citizens would lose their right to inform – and to be informed.”
“It’s terrifying,” added David Bederman, an Emory University law professor who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Georgia’s disparagement law and has published multiple articles questioning the legality of “veggie libel” laws.
Meat industry media, including Beef Magazine, have published articles criticizing the ABC News coverage of LFTB and supporting BPI’s lawsuit. But even these articles begrudgingly acknowledge the unlikely success of the action.
“The legal hurdles for defamation are huge,” wrote Troy Marshall. “Obviously, the component of proving economic damage will be easy, and there certainly was a tremendous amount of incorrect material presented by ABC as well. But the sad fact is that when the media chooses to ignore facts and sensationalize a story, there’s little recourse for the aggrieved to take, even if a company, its employees, consumers and the public are injured in the process.”
Based on the news reports, BPI has a steep legal road to climb. The outcome could have long-lasting implications for media and free speech.
Part four will provide an in-depth look at agriculture disparagement laws.
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Politicians, PR pros weigh in on BPI lawsuit

Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series related to the defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News.

As legal teams for both sides prepare for the oncoming duel over alleged defamation and product disparagement, the Beef Products Inc. public relations team is preparing for the public opinion battle.

BPI launched a website (beefisbeef.com) to counteract the negative media coverage of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), and to provide a platform of support for its product and production methods. The website offers readers a copy of the 257-page lawsuit, footage of BPI press conferences, and many links to blogs, news articles and public relations pieces that support BPI’s position.

One of the public relations pieces linked on the site is by Chuck Jolley of Jolley and Associates, a public relations firm based in the Kansas City area. “Manipulated Public Opinion Trumps Real Science – Again” is a Jan. 9 article from the Food Safety News website. This article was a response to media attention on LFTB resulting from chef Jamie Oliver’s television program that was critical of the product.

“They [BPI] made contact with me two months ago and asked if they could use the article on the website they were creating,” Jolley says.

Jolley has not done public relations work for BPI. He did say however, that he is the president of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, and that Eldon Roth, founder and CEO of BPI, was inducted into the hall of fame in 2011.

“I think ABC – Jim Avila, particularly – was way out of line in the way they presented the story,” Jolley says. “They refused to look at the other side. They used loaded language that was not appropriate; it was news sensationalism at its worst.”

The loaded language Jolley refers to involved the frequent use of the term “pink slime” instead of LFTB in the ABC report. BPI feels the use of the term promotes a negative image of the product.

The “beef is beef” website also highlights the backing BPI has from multiple elected officials. Most of the elected officials offering support are from a state that plays host to a BPI production facility. Once such article is “Governors Help BPI Wash Ammoniated Beef of ‘Pink Slime’ Image,” also from foodsafeynews.com. The supportive governors include Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Brownback, who was Kansas’ secretary of agriculture from 1986 to 1993, spoke out in defense of BPI this spring following the ABC News report. He posted on his Facebook page “Governor Brownback, Secretary of Agriculture Tour BPI Plant” March 29. This was the same day the Garden City (Kan.) Telegram published the article titled “Brownback speaks out in defense of BPI.” The article outlines Brownback’s stance.

The Garden City area is home to one of BPI’s production facilities where workers were laid off as a result of the LFTB sales slump.

“Kansas consumers demand and deserve access to safe, nutritious food,” says Sherriene Jones-Sontag, press secretary for Brownback, in a statement to Gateway Journalism Review.

“Lean finely textured beef is a scientifically proven safe, nutritious beef product that helped meet consumer’s demands,” Jones-Sontag adds. “The Brownback administration will continue doing all it can to support Kansas farmers and ranchers and encourage grocery retailers, restaurants, consumers and all involved in food service to seek the facts about lean finely textured beef.

“In Kansas, the beef industry generates more than $6.5 billion in cash receipts a year.”

Several online articles, including one in the Washington Post, have speculated on the success of BPI’s claim against ABC News, but add winning the court battle is just part of the larger war.

“It [the lawsuit] is justified in two different ways,” Jolley says. “As a journalist, I think journalism today – especially mass media – has gotten too far away from what I was taught in school. I was taught to show two sides on a story. It has become combat journalism.

“Looking at it in the broader sense, will they win? Is it worthwhile as far as journalism is concerned? I don’t think they will. They should, but it will make journalism stand up and take notice – and for us to look at the direction of journalism over the last 15 years or so.”

Does the Maker of ‘Pink Slime’ Have a Case Against ABC News?” is the headline for a Sept. 13 article on adage.com. This article reviewed the case and presented views from public relations experts, one of which had this to say: “ ‘Still, PR considerations are typically a secondary concern for companies in these legal matters,’ said Chris Gidez, senior VP and global practice lead for Hill & Knowlton Strategies. ‘Smart companies don’t make decisions about filing lawsuits based primarily on the PR implications, good or bad,’ he said. ‘They make those decisions based on the facts, and how important it is to their business.’ ”

The lawsuit was filed under the umbrella of South Dakota’s agriculture disparagement law. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have such laws on the books.

“I think those laws are ridiculous,” Jolley says. “It is good for politicians to go to constituents and say, ‘See what I did for you.’ The Paul Engler [Texas Cattlemen Association] lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey was agriculture disparagement laws’ first big test – and he lost.

“From a public relations standpoint it was a crazy move. It gave her a huge platform for what should have been a passing comment. Oprah should have sent him a gift basket for all the attention.”

Jolley has worked in public relations since the late 1970s. He works exclusively in the meat industry, with clients throughout the United States and Europe. In addition to the Food Safety News article, he has written extensively for cattlenetwork.com.

BPI spokesperson Rick Jochum did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

Part three of the series will look at the issues from the viewpoint of media and First Amendment scholars. Part four will provide an in-depth look at agriculture disparagement laws.

***Update: After this story was published, a BPI spokesman made contact with Gateway Journalism Review. The spokesman said, “On advice from counsel we are not speaking publicly about the complaint filed in Union County Circuit Court at this time.”

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