Newspapers Bleed

Newspapers portray themselves as objective interpreters of all that happens in the world that immediately surrounds them. I don’t buy it. But there’s plenty I do buy, and newspapers can help. This weekend, this one does.

Rockin’ Retail, a joint venture between The Register-Guard’s advertising department and the local Chambers of Commerce, extends “buy local” from platitude to practice. Scott Landfield, a local businessman himself, said it well in a letter to the editor yesterday: “When I see the ad of a local individual or business that excites me, I’m as smart and quick in spending as my income allows.”

We should want our newspaper-of-record to champion local enterprise. It’s OK to play favorites. We all do. Newspapers have biases, just like any other human enterprise.

Storytelling is a decidedly human undertaking. Reporters tell stories, using sources who are telling their own stories. Stories are assigned or chosen every day, based on what stories others are telling or refusing to tell. Sometimes this labyrinth pairs biases which cancel each other out, producing “news” that looks almost impartial. But other times the imperfect retellings of a story compound one another.

If there’s a way to improve this system without removing the soul at the center, nobody has found it. So we’re stuck with a process and a product that’s as imperfect as us. That’s good.

This newspaper proclaims itself in every issue to be “a citizen of its community.” Well and good, but what does that mean? If we cut it, does it bleed? And if it bleeds, does it bleed ink or blood?

This newspaper has real flesh and blood behind it — a family and a heritage. That’s apart from the hundreds of employees that form the business. Once a newspaper becomes a “property,” its employees become “heads” or “FTEs,” and decisions are made by an unknown man in a different city staring at a spreadsheet, the soul of a newspaper has partly escaped.

As long as a newspaper’s owners might find themselves behind you in the check-out line at your favorite grocery store, you have an influence that citizens in other cities have lost.

Daily newspapers famously shield reporters and editors from the economic considerations of the business. They refer to it as “the separation of church and state” and they hold the ideal as high as that lofty reference implies. But every aspect of a newspaper is affected by the local economy. The size of the paper and the size of the staff — newsroom included — follows the economic trends. Boosting local businesses can’t help but benefit the newspaper, which is itself a local business.

You know the name Alton Baker, but before he became a park, he was the publisher of this newspaper, beginning in 1927. He and other businessmen formed a clearinghouse of philanthropy called the Eugene Community Chest, which has become United Way of Lane County. This newspaper has a tradition that goes back to Alton F. Baker Sr. of using its pages and readership to promote charitable giving to United Way agencies.

Baker’s granddaughter Bridget Baker built on that legacy in January, 2005. The Register-Guard and United Way co-ventured to create a new monthly program called “Community Leaders Together.” You’ve probably seen the full-page ad on the last Sunday of each month, recognizing and promoting volunteerism in our community.

That effort was recognized last week with the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce’s Emerald Award for Community Caring. The newspaper was honored for “a long history of serving as a model citizen of the community” for its financial and employee contributions to charities.

Every exchange between citizens promotes community. It hardly matters whether they’re swapping information, passion, time, effort or money.

Which brings us to today. “Rockin’ Retail” will do more than give area residents something to do on that rare autumn weekend without a local college football game to follow. I don’t believe in shopping as an end in itself. But I do believe many of the connections we make with one another begin with those archaic words “pay to the order of.”

Shopping by itself won’t make the world better. But it could boost the local economy and give smaller businesses a united way to promote themselves. That’s a worthwhile contribution from this citizen of its community.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) owned a weekly newspaper in Eugene for a decade. He currently owns a marketing media management company, serving small and civic-minded businesses. He writes a weekly column for this newspaper and blogs.