On Good Papers and 'Bad News'
"S o," I asked the driver of the horse-drawn carriage we had hired for a 15-minute guided tour, "do you read The Pilot?"
I didn't mean this Pilot. I had in mind The State Port Pilot, published in the picturesque coastal town of Southport near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. My wife, Brenda, and I had gone there for an afternoon while vacationing last week on nearby Oak Island. We were accompanied by our daughter, Kate, who had come down from Chapel Hill for a couple of nights.
"Not really," the driver answered, keeping a close eye on traffic and a tight hand on the reins as we clip-clopped along through one of those lovely old colonial-era streets. "It's a good enough paper, I guess, and I look at it sometimes, but there's too much bad news in it. I don't know why they have to publish all that bad news."
At that moment, I felt even more rapport than usual with the local paper and its longtime editor, Ed Harper. So we weren't the only Pilot that had to deal with that age-old "bad news" rap, so often heard by newspapers - and, in my humble opinion, so often undeserved.
There's always been a certain kinship between us and the other North Carolina nondaily of that name - and not just because it also takes pride in being "a Good Newspaper in a Good Community," as it boasts under its nameplate. With some regularity, I will receive a phone call or e-mail asking us to publicize, say, a meeting of the Brunswick County Humane Society or the Shallotte chapter of something or other. It always takes me a moment to realize - "Oops, I'm afraid you've got the wrong Pilot."
I didn't ask the friendly carriage guy to elaborate on his complaint. But not long after we had alighted, I purchased a copy of Sept. 8 edition of The State Port Pilot from a coin rack. I noticed that it had a nice, good-newsy photo of an Oak Island crafts festival on the front page.
Later, back in our rental beachfront house, I perused its contents. Here is a sampling of just some of the headlines I found:
- "Dog park rejected." Bad news, perhaps, for Brunswick Area Responsible K-9s, or BARK. But good news, presumably, for those who objected to what they thought would be too much noise and mess.
- "No problems from Earl." No bad news there for anybody, except possibly those who might have profited from hurricane cleanup.
- "Schools, CIS seek same grant." Good news for whoever gets it, bad news for the other side.
- "Teen charged with felony sex offense." Bad news for the teen, but good news, of a sort, for those who hope to see justice done in such cases.
- "Commissioners to examine per diem practice." Good news for taxpayers, bad news for anyone who might be padding expense accounts.
- "Lady Cougs brush aside Laney with 3-0 volleyball victory." Good news for boosters of South Brunswick High's Cougars, bad news for fans of the Laney Buccaneers.
Anyway, you get the idea.
The State Port Pilot is a good-looking, well-written and well-edited paper that takes its community role seriously. And I feel sure that our carriage driver friend respects it for the job it does, just as he so obviously loves his native town and likes to tell visitors about it. The "bad news" objection that he and so many others raise about their papers seems mostly just a variation on the old tendency to kill the bearer of unwelcome tidings.
If I go to the doctor and he tells me I have a dread disease, that's certainly not what I wanted to hear. But if that alarming information prompts me to undergo a course of treatment that saves my life, isn't he doing me a favor?
Similarly, when a news organization reports on crime or uncovers corruption, it may not make pleasant reading. But if that knowledge prompts community leaders to take corrective measures, I think that adds up to good news, not bad.
There's a particular irony here. If Ed Harper's experience at his Pilot is anything like ours, I'll bet the jibes about too much bad news are exceeded only by accusations that he doesn't print enough about, say, that recent rash of neighborhood break-ins in Caswell Beach or wherever. Or worse, that he conspires to cover it up.
Oh, well. All in a day's work.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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