Journalism is important, because facts matter – Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (blog)

Last year, I was asked to speak to a civic club in my hometown. It was an honor and I decided to give the speech off the cuff.

Huge mistake.

It was during the 2016 presidential election season and started with a remark about how far I had come from growing up in Eufaula, Ala., to being a member of the “mainstream media.”

It was delivered as a joke. The problem was nobody laughed.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to the Columbus Kiwanis Club. I accepted, but I made a decision early that this time I was going to prepare a speech. I was going to know what I would say, how I would say it and avoid doing something really stupid.

Part of the reason for that was because the speech in Eufaula fell flat. The other reason was in this time when journalists and media outlets are under attack, I wanted my words to me measured.

So, as I do with this column, I wrote down what I planned to say to the Kiwanis Club. It was a much better day, and it will be a long time before I give a speech without it written out before hand.

And the bonus is I get to a column out of the deal.

Here is the short version of what I said earlier this week to the Kiwanis Club:

I can remember the first time I ever walked into a newsroom, it was in Enterprise, Alabama and there was a sign on the wall there. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” A similar sign once hung in many newsrooms across the country. I think it even hung in the Ledger-Enquirer break room at one time.

The message I still take from that is: facts matter.

It was August 1983, and I stumbled into Enterprise just in time for high school football season in South Alabama. I am from Eufaula, so I know a little about high school football. But I wasn’t prepared for Enterprise. There may be a few things more important than Enterprise Wildcat football, but I haven’t found them yet.

My introduction to journalism — fittingly — came in a town that has a statue to honor the Boll Weevil, a tiny insect that destroyed the cotton crop across the South in 1915 and forced farmers and entire small-town, dirt-poor economies to change their ways. The farmers in Enterprise and other parts of South Alabama diversified and began growing peanuts.

The Boll Weevil — at the end of the day — was a good thing, not a bad thing. But I am certain that is not how it was perceived at the time of the crisis. It took a real calamity for people to dramatically change the ways they had known for decades. I have my own story of change in an industry that is changing quickly.

Now let me tell you what it was like for a small-town sports editor on a one-man staff in 1983. I wrote my stories on a typewriter. Then I sent them to a typesetter, a woman who retyped those stories to get them ready for print. Oh, the things that could go wrong in a typesetting room. I once saw a story where they misspelled Fort Rucker — you know how close the R and F keys are? They misspelled it 17 times in one story.

Welcome to journalism. It ain’t perfect.

After the story got out of typesetting, the copy was placed on the page by a composing room worker, good people with Exacto knives. The page was read by a proofreader. Then the page was converted into a plate, placed on a printing press that made the whole newsroom rumble when it cranked up.

Newspaper carriers, many of whom had been doing it for decades just like their mamas and daddies before them, would take the newspaper to the streets.

The reader, then, and only then, would get to read my take on a mighty Wildcats victory over schools from Dothan, Ozark and even Phenix City.

There are times I wish we had a way-back machine and could go back to those days. They seemed simper. But in fact, they weren’t. They had their own set of complications. And people complained about the paper and the reporters back then, too. They called us a fish wrapper in Enterprise. How many of you have called the Ledger-Enquirer the 12th Street Rag — or worse?

Today, the news comes at you much quicker. The news and the opinion are at times difficult to tell apart and blurry at best. Media has become a catch-all phrase for everything from social media to television to bloggers to reporters who work for recognized news outlets. And we tend to gravitate to media sources that back our point of view.

With Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, everybody is a reporter these days. Some are better at it than others.

I want to concentrate on how the world of journalism is different today than it was in 1983. One thing is the same — facts matter. It is just a lot harder to tell what the facts are. I tell people that my job is to find the best available version of the truth, whether I am writing about the General Assembly or a new restaurant in downtown Columbus.

My job moves at a lot quicker pace than it did 34 years ago. Heck, it moves at a quicker pace than it did 24 weeks ago. There is great pressure to get it first and get it right.

I used to guess how many people read my stories, In the old days, you could take credit, fairly or unfairly, for a high Sunday newspaper sales day when you had a story prominently displayed on the front page. It must be your great work, right?

We don’t have to guess any more. I know how many people read every story or column I write. And I know on average how long they spend in a story. I know how many have a local ISP address. We have a really good idea where the readers are coming from, and they are not limited to the Chattahoochee Valley.

Social media has changed everything. I get a lot of good news leads off Facebook. I recently heard of a man flashing two women on the riverwalk on a Facebook page that was recently established for concerned citizens. I didn’t repost it immediately. I reached out to the women, checked the facts. Then I wrote something that was posted on the Ledger website and Facebook pages.

That’s why they pay me. It’s my job to check it out. You know, If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

What are journalists doing in this uncertain time? I can’t speak for everybody. But I can speak for me. I am reinventing myself, and I know others who are doing it as well. That can be difficult for older guys like me. I can see retirement, but I still have several miles to go before I can write what I want about who I want, when I want and where I want.

If you are a veteran reporter, now is the time to commit to the the basic principles. Build sources. Make sure the information is accurate. Move as quickly as possible without compromising yourself or your organization.

Here is what I hope you take away from today. It is a difficult but exciting time to be a journalist. Our jobs matter. We get to tell the stories of our community. And I love that. As a matter of fact, that is probably why I keep doing it.

Just in the past couple of years, I was able to chronicle Ron Anderson’s difficult and emotional final walk with cancer. We became good friends during that time and, it probably would not have happened if I had not been a journalist. I have written at great length over the past 17 years about the rebirth of downtown Columbus. As a journalist with context, I look at what is happening in our downtown like you might you might look at chapters in a book.

I have had a front-row seat to history covering Ranger School and the gender integration. I got to know the three women who broke that barrier, and they earned my respect along that journey.

I have a great job. That is not lost on me.

In an era where facts can be twisted and turned, people need sources of information they can trust. I would argue you can trust me and those I have the privilege to work alongside at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. I would argue you can trust the New York Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. I would argue you can trust journalism.

Because … facts matter.

I know the lengths I go to to get the facts right. And I know what others in my profession do as well. Covering Ranger School two years ago exposed me to reporters from all the major news networks, the Washington Post and New York Times. I watched those guys work and saw the ethical manner in which they did their jobs. I came away impressed and hopeful for the future of our profession.

… But I believe that the overwhelming majority of journalists care deeply about getting it right. Because more than anybody, we know that facts matter.

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