As I write this Unorganized Territory, I’m preparing to travel to Brainerd for the final session of the program I have been participating in this summer, the Blandin Foundation Editor & Publisher Community Leadership Program (E&P). It’s been an interesting experience although I’ve had a few “What was I thinking?” moments.
Two of the sessions have started on Thursday, which is the day we do our final proofreading, packaging, and sending to the printer. So it’s tough to be out of town that day. Frantically trying to get everything printer-ready before Thursday caused a few of those “What was I thinking?” thoughts.
The purpose of the E&P program is to allow editors and publishers to have some time away from their dayto day activities to look at the overall picture of the newspaper and its role in the community. The program is based on the Blandin Foundation’s 8 Dimensions of a Healthy Community, which are Life-Long Learning, Inclusion, Spiritual, Recreational and Artistic Opportunity, Environmental Stewardship, Infrastructure and Services, Safety and Security, Community Leadership and Economic Opportunity.
The Blandin Foundation asks participants in its E&P program and its other community leadership programs to take a hard look at these topics. Each participant is asked to evaluate how his or her community is doing in these dimensions. Are there life-long learning opportunities for all, from preschooler to the elderly? Are there adequate police and fire services so residents feel safe? Do community members care about the natural environment and work to protect it? Are all members of the community—regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity—included in making decisions that affect them?
Those are just a few of the questions raised in the Blandin Leadership Program. And although the program offers community building exercises and shares examples of what successful Blandin participants have accomplished, there are few answers. There is no “one size fits all” model of a healthy community or how to create it. I think at some point every Blandin Leadership program participant worries that he or she won’t make a difference, as the Blandin Foundation asks. I think we all ask, “What was I thinking?”
For me, participating in the program meant taking a hard look at the Cook County News-Herald and meant asking for feedback. That is why the News-Herald, with help from Cook County Higher Education, conducted a newspaper focus group back in May.
The focus group was not as well attended as I would have liked, but those who were there offered invaluable advice. Some of it was difficult to hear. It was challenging to take criticism of our coverage of some troubling news stories, especially when many of the concerns were due to the headlines on articles.
Ask any writer—headlines are tough. It is extremely difficult to summarize a 500 -1,200 word article in five to eight words. It is hard to encapsulate the idea of the article in just a few words without sensationalizing the content. As I listened to some suggestions for alternate headlines that could have been used, I thought the ideas were great. But, as I listened to some of the complaints, I also couldn’t help thinking, “What was I thinking?”
When I compiled the results of the focus group and shared it with my friends and co-workers at the News- Herald, I was met with mixed reactions, ranging from “No way can we do that” to “That’s not a bad idea.” We’ve enacted some of the suggestions and are working on others. But as I distributed the suggestions and comments from the focus group, I could see my fellow News-Herald staffers thinking, “What was she thinking?”
Today, as I’m again hurrying to head off to the last E&P session, I am getting very nervous about the “final exam” of the program. I have to give a 15-minute presentation on what I’ve learned through the program and what actions the News-Herald will implement to help make our community a better place. I will be offering a Power Point presentation, only the second I’ve ever done in my life. “What was I thinking?”
It is especially hard because I don’t feel that I’ve done much in the way of community building yet. I am truthfully struggling with the balance of building community and allowing the community to have a voice. And as a newspaper, we cover not only the fun stuff—the festivals, the new businesses, the births and weddings—but also the tragic deaths, the accidents, fires, and court matters.
I keep turning to a George Orwell quote that is in rotation on my email footnote: Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.
My Power Point presentation addresses that. I will share my conflict and struggle to find balance. And I will admit that we have been taking baby steps.
We’ve tweaked our letter to the editor policy to put the responsibility to be respectful on submitters. We’ve resurrected our “Get Involved in Government” feature, providing a “Clip and Save” list of various government boards with information on when and where they met. We are trying to be cautious about headlines and pull-quotes, not highlighting something that doesn’t represent the article well. There are more things in the works—stay tuned.
I’m also thinking of starting a “Coffee with the News-Herald” monthly event, meeting with readers at the local coffee shop. I’m a bit nervous about that though—what do you think readers? Should we do it? Or will it be another thing that makes me say, “What was I thinking?”
Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you think!
After enlightenment, the laundry
Zen quote from Mirja P. Hanson Editor & Publisher Community Leadership Program facilitator