Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When reporters cover tough topics… January 31, 2019

 

THE NEXT TIME YOU CRITICIZE a journalist or rant that reporters are nothing but a bunch of biased writers, consider this. My local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News, recently placed first in the Social Issues category of the 2017-2018 Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest. For a series on domestic violence.

The award-winning series, titled “Abuse,” published over a period of a year and covered the gamut from information to interviews with survivors and their families, advocates, police and more. These were powerful pieces, written primarily by reporter Gunnar Olson but also by Regional Editor Suzanne Rook.

It is the personal stories which made this series. Emotional stories. Gut-wrenching, difficult stories. Stories that needed to be told, heard, written, read and, then, remembered.

 

 

When a reporter can take a topic like domestic abuse and violence, interview people in a caring and compassionate way, and then share those stories through dynamic writing, that work deserves recognition. By fellow journalists. And by readers. I applaud the Daily News for raising awareness, educating and connecting people to this social issue via deeply personal stories.

As a former weekly and daily newspaper reporter, I will confirm that writing stories like this is difficult. I once wrote a series on eating disorders that included interviewing a survivor and the mother of a young woman who died from anorexia. Although I kept my professional persona in place while working on the series, inside my heart hurt for every single individual I interviewed. Reporters have a job to do. But they are still human.

I often hear newspapers criticized for printing nothing but bad news. That raises my ire. Do not kill the messenger. Newspapers are not PR mouthpieces. They are newspapers. It is their job to report the news—good and bad. Features and hard news. They do not cause the bad news. People do.

Today, more than ever, journalists are under attack. For writing fake news. For not writing something they should have or for writing something they shouldn’t have. They are losing their jobs. The free press is threatened. That should scare every single person. Democracy needs a strong and free press.

Yes, I’ve sidetracked a bit. But I’ll circle back now and reaffirm how much I appreciate my community newspaper. Reporters keep me informed of local issues and happenings, of good news and bad. I am grateful for their hard work and their willingness to stretch beyond the everyday news to cover important topics. Like domestic violence.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Whiteout, and not the kind you think August 16, 2017

 

 

 

MY MIND WAS ALREADY reaching for the phone, punching the number for the circulation department of the Faribault Daily News when I paused.

With a sports headline printed above the nameplate and an ad stretched across the bottom of an otherwise blank front page, I realized—kaboom—that the white space couldn’t be accidental. There was a reason the paper I grabbed from my front steps on Tuesday morning was devoid of front page news.

 

 

I flipped to page two. There I found my answer. The absence of news was intentional. According to an article published there, more than 200 Minnesota newspapers are participating in a “Whiteout” to remind readers of the importance of newspapers in their local communities during Minnesota Newspaper Week.

Brilliant, simply brilliant. What an incredible visual way to make a point.

Quotes supporting freedom of the press ran in a sidebar:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.”—Thomas Jefferson

“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”—Walter Cronkite

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”  First Amendment to the Constitution

As a former newspaper reporter, I especially value freedom of the press. I hope the average person realizes just how important a free press is to our democracy. When a government controls the media, we lose our freedom.

I can’t recall a time in the U.S. when the media have been more ruthlessly attacked by people in power than now.

 

 

 

When I think back to my years as a community journalist, though, I recall efforts by some locals to curtail my reporting in several small Minnesota towns. A high school music teacher once attempted to intimidate me after I wrote about controversial discussions at a public school board meeting. Likewise, a realtor verbally attacked me when I wrote about city council proceedings that involved him. A school superintendent in one community treated me with disdain after I covered a student walk-out. Thankfully my editors backed me up and I continued to do my job.

Being a journalist isn’t easy, especially in today’s world. I expect the pay, the long and odd hours and stress are just as awful as when I worked in the profession decades ago. And the criticism is fierce. People complain all the time about the media. Sometimes those complaints are justified. But mostly not.

I say, “Stop blaming the messenger.” Journalists do not make the news. They are only reporting it. And we should all value that they have the freedom to do so.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When a small town Minnesota newspaper implements a “pay for” letter policy August 11, 2016

SHOULD A NEWSPAPER charge for publishing a letter to the editor?

My Minnesota State University, Mankato, journalism professor Robert Shipman would likely turn over in his grave if he read that question. He impressed upon me that the editorial page is the heart of a newspaper. A staunch supporter of community journalism, he would not advocate paying for letters to the editor. Neither do I.

I have great respect for this newspaper man who nearly 40 years ago taught me the basics of journalism—instilling in me a strong sense of fairness in writing balanced news stories. Opinion, he emphasized, should be reserved for the editorial page.

 

Gaylord Hub election letters policy - Copy

 

This brings me back to charging a fee for letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, my concern is prompted by a notice published in The Gaylord Hub, a third-generation family newspaper where I accepted a reporting job right out of college.

Decades after I left my two-year stint at this small southern Minnesota weekly, I still get The Gaylord Hub. Unlike most community newspapers, The Hub does not have a strong editorial page. Rare are the editorials. However, locals often voice their opinions in letters to the editor. There’s been significant controversy in Gaylord related to school issues.

But now the publisher/editor has established a new policy for election-themed letters. Policies for letters to the editor are the norm at newspapers. Many publications restrict length; monitor for libelous and offensive content and personal attacks, etc.; and don’t publish election-related letters in the final issue before an election. But, in a quick perusal of the internet, checking out several major dailies across the country and several Minnesota daily and weeklies, I found none with a “pay for” publication fee.

The Little Falls based The Morrison County Record, for example, states that “Letter writers are encouraged to stick to the issues and the positions on issues and qualifications of the candidates.” Letters that lean toward advertising aren’t published.

In Gaylord, though, under the new policy, if you want to write a letter supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party, you’ll have to pay for it. Thirty dollars for up to 300 words for a Paid Election Letter.

I get where the newspaper is coming from with this policy. Some people will abuse the system by viewing the editorial page as a free advertising opportunity. But to blanket apply that to all election-focused letters seems a suppression of opinions. The policies established by The Morrison County Record seem more appropriate, more balanced in curbing potential abuse while maintaining freedom of expression.

That said, there was a time when newspapers printed obituaries and engagement, wedding and birth announcements at no cost to readers. No more, at least in most publications. Would my college professor opine that change. He likely would. Robert Shipman was Old School community journalism. He was all about integrity, unbiased reporting, getting facts right and, above all, always always spelling names correctly. He taught me well. He taught me that the opinion page is the heart of a newspaper.

Thoughts?

Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The new letters to the editor policy published in the August 4 edition of The Gaylord Hub.

 

Oh, the interesting topics you’ll find in small town newspapers…of bullets, burgers & babies… August 14, 2012

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SMALL TOWN NEWSPAPERS make for some interesting reading. Stories can get downright personal and to the point.

For example, I found a gem last week online at The Redwood Falls Gazette, a twice-a-week newspaper published in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. It’s the newspaper I grew up reading.

The Redwood Falls Gazette editor Troy Krause, right, interviews Todd Bol, co-founder of the Little Free Library in Vesta in early July. Bol gave a LFL to my hometown and installed it at the Vesta Cafe.

In the “Backward Glance” section of the newspaper, under 1987—25 years ago, this tidbit of information was published:

In the listings of the Redwood County 4-H county fair champions, Troy Krause of the Loyal Scotties was overall grand champion in flower gardens, while Kelly Zwaschka of the Vesta Vikings won champion child development.

(Note: Troy is editor of the Redwood Gazette, while wife Kelly gave birth to their seventh child, Gideon, this week. Congrats from the Gazette staff!)

How’s that for a birth announcement? Obviously Kelly’s interest in child development, even as a 4-Her, was a clear indicator of her future. As for Todd, I believe flower gardening could be connected to creativity/writing.

You’ll also find a brief about a game warden, shot through the head in 1937 by another game warden who mistook him for a bear. That’s listed in the 50 years ago section of “Backward Glances.” So, yes, apparently Merle Shields survived the incident as he was celebrating his 20th year as a Redwood County game warden in 1962. (BTW, since writing this post, I discovered that The Gazette has upgraded its website and the “Backward Glance” I reference here cannot be found, or I couldn’t find it.)

The third piece of interest was published in last week’s The Gaylord Hub, where I worked for two years as a news reporter and photographer right out of college. Avery Grochow, past president of The Gaylord Chamber of Commerce, penned a letter to the editor which I am certain is the current coffee shop talk of Gaylord.

I’ll summarize parts of his lengthy, six-paragraph letter and quote directly when needed. Grochow begins:

We, as the chamber board, are constantly trying to do our best for our community and are constantly being criticized by some for our decisions.

Apparently locals were grumbling about the food—who supplied it and how it tasted—at the community’s annual Eggstravaganza summer festival. New volunteers, replaced Dewey (whoever that is; my words here, not Avery’s), who “wanted a year off from all the arguments.” They stepped up and worked through a new bidding process for the supplies, awarding the bid to the lowest bidder.

Grochow continues:

We have had comments both ways about the supplying of hamburger. Some have criticized us in the past because the hamburger was too spicy, that they would rather have plain burgers, and we are now being criticized that we are having plain burgers and not spiced burgers.

No matter what we do as volunteers and directors for the Chamber, we can’t please everyone…We did what we thought was fair to everyone by taking bids on everything and stand by our decision.

Now, just imagine how difficult it must have been for Grochow to write this letter. Not an easy thing to do when you live in a small town like Gaylord where everyone’s lives are intertwined.

I give Grochow credit for having the guts to publicly voice his opinion in print. He doesn’t just vent, though. He offers a solution. And therein lies the point best taken by those who read his letter.

…if anyone has better ideas for us, we still are short of directors and could use all the help we can get to make our Chamber even more successful. We also have openings on the board so you can be part of the decision making, instead of just always making bad comments because you don’t like what we did. Remember, we, as the Chamber Board of Directors, are just volunteers trying to make Gaylord a better place to live and hopefully to have a great celebration.

Those closing remarks are words we could all heed because I expect you, like me, are guilty of occasional grumbling and complaining.