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The hard truths of newspapering

By Kevin Ferris, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

When it comes to the realities of life in journalism, no one prepared me more while I was an undergrad at Virginia Commonwealth University than Bill Turpin.

He was No. 2 in the department of mass communications when I arrived in the fall of 1979 after three years in the Army. In a previous life he had been a small-town newspaper publisher. And in that small Southern town, he saw every day the impact he had on his community.

If readers didn’t like something in his paper, he heard about it. If they didn’t get their paper on time, they let him know. He could be confronted while in line at the grocery store, on the sidelines at a Little League game, or while out with his family. And there was no deflecting responsibility. As a small-town publisher, he was the editor, the advertising director, the circulation manager, and whatever else needed to be done on any given day.

Sometimes an apology was in order, and a promise to make things right: for a typo or factual error, for an ad that wasn’t run as promised, for a late paper. Other times he had to stick to his guns: for unflattering coverage of a local politician, for opinions that made someone want to cancel a subscription.

No business person in his right mind wants to anger readers, advertisers, neighbors, friends, colleagues. But one of the realities of journalism, Turpin would remind us, is that newspapers aren’t just a business. They come with added burdens and responsibilities. And one of those tasks is to point out the truth, however uncomfortable, as best as it can be determined. I don’t mean truth in some godlike, omniscient way delivered from paragons of virtue. And Turpin never looked at the profession or its practitioners that way either. I mean reporting on the truth as it is determined from the facts at hand, as fairly and accurately and responsibly as possible.

Of course, sometimes when you do that, someone is going to be upset. And you’ll hear about it — in Turpin’s case very up close and personally. If you can’t handle that kind of pressure, and in the process stand up for your good name and your publication’s, you don’t belong in the business. Back down, degrade that good name in any way, and you have no business.

So why do I keep using the word business instead of profession or even noble calling? Because of the other reality check Turpin passed along.

In our senior year, we took a newspaper-management class from Turpin that went way beyond the ins and outs of herding cats in a newsroom. We spent half our time shadowing a local publisher to learn about all aspects of the business: circulation, advertising, business, production. Then we had to create our own fictional paper, from staffing, to realistic budgets for each department, to designs for everything from the newsroom to the pressroom.

It was quite the adjustment from all those reporting and editing classes. A classroom full of Woodward and Bernstein wannabes were being pestered with questions like, Where are the bathrooms for your employees?

I can’t say that I became an expert in any of that, but I did take away the message that Turpin repeated over and over: No matter how talented the writers and photographers, the editors and page designers, the advertising and production staffs, they couldn’t put those talents to use if your newspaper wasn’t making money.

Thirty years later, the money isn’t being made. And changing economic realities require that newspapers adjust or die. So I applaud attempts to expand the readership and re-create an industry — whether through tweets, Facebook, apps, and a host of online products I have yet to figure out how to use — in order to retain and create jobs for talented people, and to keep serving the community.

At the same time, I confess to being just a bit more worn down and a little more discouraged with each round of layoffs. More were announced in Philadelphia last week. Regular reports of the company being sold, and allegations about behind-the-scenes games being played, aren’t that great for morale either.

Occasional bouts of discouragement, however, don’t mean I don’t think that newspapers shouldn’t change with the times and technology. Or that I think that any one of us is indispensable. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to imagine a newspaper without certain individuals. And, yes, some days it’s just hard to walk in the door knowing that others won’t be with you any longer.

But, as with all things, we get a brief blink of an eye to do our best, to add to the debate, to make gentle the life of this world. And in that time, we hope, through our efforts, that we’ve made a contribution, and in the process, have stood up for our good name and our newspaper’s.

There is no business without that name.

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