[Editor’s Note: Talker has great respect and communicates frequently with many writers at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, including David Andreatta, Jim Memmott, Erica Bryant, Meaghan McDermott, Steve Orr, Leo Roth and Sal Maiorano. While we do necessarily agree with all that Michael Nighan says below, the steady shrinking of the Speaking Out page is a sad development, whether it is driven by cost cutting or indicative of public indifference.
As seen in Life as a D & C blogger. The lost photos. And Common Wealth., only a few years ago the page thrived with daily Blogitorials, Cyberquotes, Letters to the Editor and Guest Essays. For example, in my travels in the RCSD, I often see a Guest Essay proudly taped to a teacher’s door or bulletin board. I fear those days — as the old essays yellow and fade — are coming to a close.]
Democrat & Chronicle 2018: We Welcome Your Opinion (as long as we have room for it and it doesn’t target us)
In previously evaluating where the Democrat & Chronicle wound up at the end of the year, Democrat and Chronicle 2018: Endings, with no Signs of Beginnings, I focused on the impact on the paper’s significant staff reductions occasioned by Gannett’s Night(s) of the Long Knives of layoffs and early “retirements.” But there’s also the issue of the year’s impact on the paper’s journalistic credibility, specifically in regards to the manner in which the D&C treats the opinions of its readers and thus serves the pubic interest. I’m afraid it’s not a pretty sight.
Let’s look at two determining factors: one announced publicly, the other communicated to me directly by the paper’s senior management.
As recently as January 2017, the D&C was still running a traditional Opinion Page, with daily Letters to the Editor and editorials dealing with local issues. Then the ax fell and these offerings were cut down to four days a week. The excuse given for the reduction was somehow connected with alleged improvements to their digital services, although the relationship between the two areas was never made clear.
Then this past June, the ax was swung again, and the space allotted to opinions, both the D&C’s and the public’s were slashed to just Saturdays and Sundays. Once again, this downsizing was defended as, “part of our ongoing evolution in a digital world.” While it could be debated whether the decrease in editorials was any great loss, the reality was that the opportunity for readers to air their views were slashed from an average of 35 letters a week in 2015 to about 13 a week this past December.Which leads to the second factor. Back in October I wrote how I’d sent the D&C a Letter expressing my opinion that their editors appeared to be engaging in censorship because no Letters which took exception to the paper’s views or journalistic practices were appearing in print. The Letter of course wasn’t printed (shades of a self-fulfilling prophecy) leading me to contact the then Editor and VP, Karen Magnuson, and Julie Philipp, the Senior Engagement Editor (aren’t these Digital Age job titles wonderful?) asking for an explanation as to why Letters critical of the D&C were not being published. The response from Ms. Philipp was as follows:
…we actually welcome and highly encourage letters that are in opposition to our editorials or other opinion content. These letters of course must be based on fact, offer substantiating evidence and meet our submission guidelines. We regularly print opposing viewpoints…
Setting aside the point that opinions (as in the Opinion Page) by definition do not need to be based on facts, I responded to Ms. Philipp by asking why those same standards were not being applied to Letters critical of, for instance, political personalities. And why the requirement for facts and evidence had never previously been made public. Naturally, those questions went unanswered.
So, in order to determine whether my suspicions that the D&C was operating under a double standard were correct, I decided to perform a review of all D&C Letters to the Editor published during 2018. (Thank heavens for newspapers.com.) I’ll let you determine for yourself whether the paper’s requirement of “facts” and “substantiating evidence” are being applied in a consistent manner, or at all for that matter, or whether this is just self-serving hypocrisy to cover a practice of censorship.
So here’s the count. Out of a total of 736 Letters printed in the D&C in 2018, the paper published a grand total of one (1) which directly criticized their operations, specifically taking exception to the content of an editorial.
Two other Letters took oblique swipes at the D&C by criticizing news reporting in general in one case, and the language that the paper permitted a reporter to use in the second. Related to this second Letter, three additional Letters criticizing writings by various staffers were also printed. Interestingly enough, none of these 6 Letters met the hurdle of providing either the “facts” or the “substantiating evidence” supposedly required for publication.
An amusing sidebar to my research was finding that during 2018, despite the reduction in space for Letters to the Editor, the D&C nevertheless managed to find room to publish 12 Letters praising various D&C staff members.
Still looking for signs of consistency or credibility, I found that last year the D&C had published:
- 33 Letters that criticized Trump (that the total was that small was surprising)
- 9 that criticized Andrew Cuomo (ditto)
- 10 that blasted the Republican or Democratic parties, and
- 6 that slammed Sen. Schumer, Sen. Gillibrand, Rep. Chris Collins, Rep, Tom Reed, and Assemblyman David Gantt.
At the end of my review, it seems clear that the Democrat and Chronicle’s credibility, vis-à-vis the handling of public opinion, is close to nil. Their commitment to one of the principal obligations of a newspaper, namely to act as a sounding board for public opinion, is rapidly diminishing. Taken in conjunction with the fact that there is clearly no coherent or consistent, or at least no consistently-applied, standard for Letters to the Editor other than that everyone is a target for criticism, EXCEPT the D&C, the management of the paper has made a mockery of the claim contained in their mission statement that, “The Democrat and Chronicle remains ever vigilant for the community good.” Far more honest would be to simply say, ”All the views that fit, we print.”