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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

To Tell or Not to Tell   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

When the Akron Beacon Journal's publisher decided not to relay information he received from the city's police chief to the paper's editorial staff, he triggered a debate over the role of the publisher in the newsroom.

According to the Beacon Journal, Publisher John L. Dotson Jr. learned October 15 in a conversation with Police Chief Edward D. Irvine that the chief's wife, Geneva, had gone to a hospital with injuries, which she told hospital personnel her husband had inflicted. (She later recanted those claims.) The paper's main police reporter, Robert Hoiles, also received the information that day from the chief, in confidence. Neither shared the news with an editor.

It wasn't until December 12--after an anonymous source tipped off another reporter--that the Beacon Journal published a story on the domestic violence allegation. In May, the paper released its examination of the police department's report--which found no evidence of domestic violence. And it was then the paper revealed early, and undisclosed, knowledge of the story in its ranks.

Dotson says he'd "absolutely" react differently if he had to make that decision again. He explained his rationale in not giving the information to the newsroom: "I get calls pretty regularly about things that people want in the paper or things that people don't want in the paper. And I have essentially said that I won't be a conduit for stories to the newspaper--unless I see them as definitely stories for the paper."

Most--if not all--publishers get those calls of which Dotson speaks. Maintaining a community role and heading a newspaper inherently create a balance beam of a job description. How or when should a publisher share information obtained from civic contacts? How high is that wall between business and editorial? And what role does a publisher assume in editorial matters?

In the Akron case, according to the paper's May 4 story, Dotson said Irvine called him and said "that his wife had been drinking, fell on the steps carrying a vacuum cleaner and that she was in the hospital." The chief added that his wife "had said that he had pushed her." Dotson told Irvine he would "look out for the story--if the story appeared, try to make sure that he got the opportunity to respond." When no story showed up on news budgets during the next couple of weeks, Dotson "figured there wasn't a story and stopped checking."

"I wish [Dotson] would've told me," says Beacon Journal Editor and Vice President Jan Leach. "But I really can't presume to know what was going on in his mind that day or later."

Leach describes the editor-publisher relationship at her paper as "wonderful." Dotson, a former reporter and editor who became a publisher 12 years ago, understands the demands she faces, she says, and "he doesn't interfere. He doesn't spike stories."

In a May 4 column by Dotson about his role in the story, he wrote: "Clearly, in hindsight, I was misled and may not have been as alert as I should have been to a significant possible news story involving a major department of our city government."

As for the future, he said in an AJR interview, "As a publisher I've got a community commitment as the newspaper's sort of public face to the community... There are going to be instances in which information comes to me on a confidential basis, which I then would keep confidential. This..I think has been the traditional role of the publisher."

Other publishers confront that tricky line between civic and newsroom involvement almost daily. Heath Meriwether, publisher of the Detroit Free Press, says there's a speech publishers get when they join community boards that sounds something like, "There's a certain level of confidentiality expected of the board member." So, Meriwether always makes "my little speech back," saying, "My first obligation is always to the paper..but I will certainly honor as much as I can..the confidentiality of the board meeting."

Meriwether passes on information by saying, "Now, you cannot use this... You should have this as background." And, he adds, "I think you can sometimes point to people and say, 'You know, you should really keep asking about what's going on there.' "

He continues, "I don't want my newsroom to be blindsided..and I also don't want my newsroom to find out I knew about it, and they get scooped." But he can also lose credibility with the community if he goes too far. "It's a really interesting balancing act," he says, "and sometimes we screw up."

N. Christian Anderson, publisher and CEO of the Orange County Register and president of ASNE, says he's "totally comfortable" suggesting story ideas.

But Anderson cautions one has to be careful with confidentiality. "I don't think that because you're the publisher of a newspaper there is an explicit understanding in that everything anyone says to you is on a confidential basis," he says. "I think that a publisher is similar to a reporter--you do not grant confidentiality lightly."

The publisher-as-reporter is a theme invoked by many. "Everybody who works in a newspaper is potentially a journalist," says Steve Geimann, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee. At the Beacon Journal, Dotson "held this separation between the editorial and the publisher's office as this sacrosanct wall," Geimann says. "When legitimate news breaks out, I think that you have an obligation to represent the community's interest in getting the story out there."

Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, extends that obligation "from janitor to publisher." A publisher, he says, "should not prevent things from being published but should aid in every way" in getting vital information to editors, functioning as a tipster.

The publisher's editorial dilemma is eased when he or she has a high level of trust in key newsroom executives. During the 15 years Frank A. Blethen has been publisher and CEO of the Seattle Times, Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher and Managing Editor Alex MacLeod have held their posts.

"If I am aware of something or if I'm getting some pressure from the outside, 99.99 percent of the time I just pass it on to the two of them and let them decide what they want to do with it," he says.

But that's not 100 percent of the time. In the late '80s, Blethen says, some top players with the Nordstrom department store chain told Blethen the Times should stop covering the company's labor troubles, or it would pull its ads. "In a case like that," he says, "I don't even pass that on." (The Times didn't back off, and Nordstrom lived up to the threat.)

Blethen draws crisp lines between his responsibility and that of the editors. "I always tell people... I'm not a reporter," he says. "If something involves a news circumstance directly, I refer that person" to Fancher or MacLeod.

Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, maintains that "morale is better in newsrooms that have a hands-on publisher." Meyer conducted an ASNE survey in the early '80s on the relationship between editors and publishers. He found there weren't enough "statesmen"--the ones, as defined by Meyer, who often give the newsroom tips and advice but don't try to keep things in or out of print.

Meyer doesn't think those findings have changed much. And he doesn't think the line between community force and newspaper publisher is all that difficult to navigate. "The two sides, the business side and editorial side, have to come together at some point," he says. "The wall [for publishers]..has been greatly exaggerated."

But not everyone believes it's easy. "I'm glad I'm not a publisher," says Beacon Journal Editor Leach. "I don't have to walk that line."