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A couple weeks ago, on Easter, I shared a prediction:
Public discourse is likely to get, stupendously, even more rancorous in the weeks and months to come. Not only is the question of when and how we reopen the economy one of unparalleled consequence in its economic and public health implications, but we’re roaring towards a presidential election in a more polarized media environment than any other in modern times.
The public dialogue I witnessed and experienced firsthand on Monday proved this prediction true.
LebTown was among the first outlets in the state to report the plan for Monday’s rally at the Capitol, and we followed it up with an article about the event itself on Monday afternoon.
This also happened to be the day that we announced our content partnership with Spotlight PA, the dozen-or-so strong newsroom that has catapulted to front of the pack when it comes to statehouse reporting.
Many of you were excited about this development, a feeling I share. But the brief moment of celebration departed as State Rep. Russ Diamond went live from the Capitol steps and Lebanon County’s attention turned to the rally happening some 30 miles away. A public debate followed – a community contorted. And readers turning to LebTown asking us to choose sides.
Let’s pause a moment. A deep breath and a beat to ourselves. What follows is a discussion of perhaps the most controversial topic in journalism. I have lived this debate for the past dozen years, and while I no longer dwell in the abstractions of journalistic theory, I’ve got to set the record straight.
We need to talk about journalism for a minute. Why LebTown exists.
When I first became a publisher, I was a freshman at Penn State the year Obama got elected for his inaugural term. I was a blogger before I was a journalist and inspired by the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Nick Denton. In that moment, I felt like there was an opportunity for something different at Penn State – a news outlet that spoke for the students. Onward State, through the contributions of hundreds of Penn Staters, has realized that vision and provided an outlet for student opinions and perspectives that didn’t exist before.
That was a different time. It was before the newspaper industry totally cratered. Before Jay Rosen’s “view from nowhere” went from being an innovative tactic to an assumed stance for news organizations. Before social media became pervasive, before mass misinformation.
While I still believe in blogging, I didn’t realize at the time that our foundation would erode. Most news stories can be sourced back to newspaper reporting. A house built on sand is no place to live. Maybe in time, a younger version of me will come along and she’ll build the equivalent of Onward State for Lebanon County – something more opinionated, an outlet with a clear perspective on what’s right, what’s wrong, as opposed to simply reporting the ascertainable facts. With any luck, we’ll see two or three of these outlets pop up. There is a real role for this type of journalism.
We don’t have that factual foundation yet, and we actually have quite a ways to go. But we will get there. Our focus is clear and unimpeded.
LebTown exists to provide a common set of facts for our community. To be the foundation of a stronger civic discourse. To make Lebanon County a better place.
Yes, we write editorials from time to time (case in point), but I try to limit them to occasions when our reporting is being constrained somehow. In this case, I need to address a pattern of thinking that threatens to limit what our newsroom can do for Lebanon County.
“It is my hope that your joining Spotlight PA will cause you to be nonpartisan and do in-depth reporting even on the Republican powers that be in Lebanon County. True journalistic independence requires you to do so. How about an editorial calling Russ Diamond’s sponsorship of a rally irresponsible to health care workers and the public in general? I doubt it will ever happen in LebTown.”
“Hello ….I cannot believe you’re allowing people to bash business owners for defending their lives and business by posting names and business to be basically boycotted! shame on you for letting it go this far…I thought this page was about the community, as I see people are scared of getting sick..I get it! But for those who aren’t as paranoid it’s also their right to try and make a living. people are going insane and these posts aren’t helping”
“Having had family members in the field of journalism I am surprised that you feel editorials are reserved only for when your ability to report is impeded. Take a stand on public health. I read several newspapers a day, some with conservative bents, some with liberal ones. Their editorials are not reserved for impeded reporting. If you want to be a legitimate news source. Take a stand, regardless of who your investors are.” (a followup message from the person who sent that first one)
Please stop asking us to take sides. You are missing the point of why we’re here. We don’t want to have a “bent.” We trust our readers to read the articles, to interrogate our reporting, to hold us accountable. We depend on tips and story ideas from the public, and will make ourselves available to discuss, defend, or investigate any possible case of journalistic oversight or malfeasance. We welcome feedback or suggestions on how we can improve or expand our reporting. And we’re always on the hunt for freelancers to help us do more journalism…
If we let our opinions, our biases, our own sense of truth eclipse what can be factually or empirically reported, we threaten to undermine the whole enterprise. Even if we do feel strongly about something. Don’t read that as a coded message either; I believe the biggest risk right now for our body politic is the instinct to choose a side, cast someone as foe or friend, fall victim to the false dichotomy.
We report the news. We talk to sources. We followup, we fact check, we investigate. And there is so much more we want to be doing in this regard…
I also want to address the specific remark about our investors. As we’ve disclosed on all coverage that mentions him, we do have one at this point, Dave Warner, who happens to be the county solicitor and an attorney at Buzgon-Davis. He does not have any involvement in newsroom operations; did not see this editorial before it was published or even know it was being written; does not have access to the Facebook page or the content management system or communications systems (email, Slack, and Trello); etc. I consider Dave a friend and a partner, and you very well may have seen him boosting or representing our brand to the public.
It’s a key part of my job to make sure that Dave and I always interact with propriety in respect to the journalism, and there’s a reason that LebTown discloses conflicts of interest. I believe that as an organization regularly seeking increased transparency from others, it’s only fitting that we attempt to be the best possible practitioner of openness as well.
One of the management practices I admired most about Nick Denton was that he allowed his staff to speak freely about internal affairs. I have told our newsroom team that they have the same privilege, be it a source, a reader, or even a fellow journalist. I act each day with the understanding that I am accountable to the public. I hold that trust as dearly as anything in my life. Nothing less is at stake than my honor, my conscience.
We report to you, we report for you, and we’re building an organization that will hold this pledge for decades to come.
If you have questions or feedback for us, please leave a comment below. I respond personally to anything with an email address included. Thank you for reading LebTown, and believing in the promise of independent, fact-based, non-partisan reporting.