President's Column: Local newspapers make a difference

By OPA President Jeff Funk, publisher of Enid News & Eagle
Published in The Oklahoma Publisher, June 2015

       When newspaper people gathered for the Oklahoma Press Association’s annual convention, it was great fun just eavesdropping on conversations in the lobby and hallways.
       Many of those conversations were about change. In the news business, we are facing change at a crazy pace – change in how we do our jobs, and especially change in how people access “the news.”
       There are moments – especially times when Facebook gossip seems to carry more weight than our carefully confirmed stories – that we get more than a little frustrated, depressed or even outright angry.
       So, for a little perspective, I’d like to draw a comparison from a film that, while decades old, is such a classic that I think people both young and old can relate. The movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart, is a Christmas season viewing tradition for many families. In that classic, angels give a depressed businessman, George Bailey, a chance to see what life in his community would have been like if he had NOT been there to make a difference – what the world would be if he never existed.
       So, what happens if we apply that plot line to community newspapers? (After all, we as newspaper people, like George Bailey, sometimes get discouraged.)
       What would our community be without its newspaper? What differences have WE made? That question has thousands of answers, but here’s one scenario a lot of us could relate to:
       Would voters have approved that school bond issue if our newspaper had not told readers, in words and photos, just how bad conditions had become and described what other, similar school districts enjoy?
       Then, if our town had failed to pass the bond issue and didn’t build the new classrooms, would that new hardware store manager have moved to our town, or would he have taken that job in Kansas instead? No, he would have gone to Kansas. Then, as a result, his wife would not be in our town teaching music lessons. And then, our neighbor’s daughter would not have received the extra music training that led her to that scholarship offer.
       The example could go on and on and on with things that did NOT happen in our community if voters did NOT pass that bond issue. But, that make-believe scenario didn’t happen because of that bond issue story in a community newspaper – a good newspaper doing good journalism.
       If – as happened in “Wonderful Life” – angels gave us a chance to see the differences our newspapers have made, I’ll bet the examples would be stunning. You see, a good newspaper is not just RECORDING a town’s history, it’s really helping a town MAKE its history.
       Commentators talk about the “power of the press.” I’d suggest it’s not power, but influence. Influence, in this case, comes from having a widely read, and widely respected, news product or products.
       The leadership of Oklahoma’s newspapers includes a lot of respected Oklahoma influencers.
So, how have we been able to influence good – good people, good growth, good decisions? How have we been a positive, constructive influence for our readers?
       Also, taking a different perspective, how have we been a conscience for our readers and our community?
       When I was growing up, as a child and especially as a teenager, I thought about doing some really stupid things. And what kept me from it? Because (1) my friends might find out, or (2) my teachers might find out, or worse yet, because Mom and Dad might find out.
       So, let’s apply that “conscience” concept to our communities and our newspapers. What might people in power have done if we, our newspapers, had NOT been watching?
       Or, because we have been dependably reporting on local news, how often sometime/somewhere did a bad choice vanish when someone said:
       “Oh, we can’t do that. The press would have a field day with that. We’d never hear the end of it.”
       People choose NOT to commit crimes because they fear the consequences. I wouldn’t consider committing a crime in Osage County because Louise Red Corn and The Bigheart Times would make me a laughingstock. If you want examples of great, and funny, crime coverage, just flip through pages of The Bigheart Times.
       So, let’s look at YOUR community. How has your newspaper been a conscience for local government or civic
or business leaders? What dishonest or self-serving choices never happened – never were seriously considered – just because people knew your newspaper existed and you might find out?
       Or, on the positive side, how has your newspaper championed good and celebrated accomplishment. In newspapering as in life, we reward what we find desirable. Therefore, we print news of graduations, and scholarship winners, and Eagle Scouts, and 50-year anniversaries, and the list could go on and on.
       So let me conclude by reassuring you that your newspaper does make a difference, a BIG difference, every week – even when you don’t immediately see it. And, let me challenge you to consider how you’ll use your influence, in a constructive way, in your communities in the coming year.