It's your newspaper...write to usEvery time I return to the News-Chronicle office – and it’s a good thing I love the place because I’ve accepted it as my destiny to never really leave – I ask the staff, “Where’s the 1986 Minnesota Newspaper Association Freedom of Information Award?”
By: Robin Washington, Lake County News Chronicle
Every time I return to the News-Chronicle office – and it’s a good thing I love the place because I’ve accepted it as my destiny to never really leave – I ask the staff, “Where’s the 1986 Minnesota Newspaper Association Freedom of Information Award?”
Never mind that the plaque is older than two of our reporters, for whom 1986 is the same as asking me about McArthur’s plan to win the Korean War – or for that matter, whether the University of Minnesota is really on board with this taconite idea. I still want to see it hanging there.
For my ego, because it happened under my first tenure here? You betcha. But more than that, it’s because it’s your award – and a reminder of the power and influence readers have over a newspaper, and indeed, an entire community.
My only real contribution to the award was just doing my job, and beyond that, submitting the entry into the contest. It started 26 years ago this week, before I got there. Then-editor and publisher Hugh Bishop had written several editorials critical of the county Social Services Board, which had the same makeup as the County Board. Some members complained to the now-defunct Minnesota News Council, which arbitrated grievances against news media. The council forwarded the complaints to Mary Williams, the newspaper’s owner, who lived half the year in Iowa and snowbirded in Florida.
Mrs. Williams, who had inherited the paper from her husband and wasn’t up on the workings of the News Council, sent a letter to Bishop telling him not to write editorials about the Social Services Board. Snail mail being what it was, by the time he’d received it, he’d already published a few more, engendering more complaints. Mrs. Williams got the second round and, thinking Bishop had defied her, told him not to write any editorials about anything.
Bishop quit, and the paper went without an editor and publisher for about a month – during which time a company called Reserve Mining went out of business, a story that didn’t get reported adequately in the News-Chronicle with Bishop departed.
In the meantime, the county folk rose up. Someone got Mrs. Williams address in Iowa (published in the paper’s official statement of ownership) and spread the word. She received 70-odd letters saying, in essence, “Don’t you ever gag our editor!”
To her great credit, she told me that story when I interviewed for the job at her home in Spencer, Iowa.
“I learned my lesson,” she said. “Write what you want.”
And I took those marching orders and ran with them – right to the County Board and a secret meeting they were having as the Social Services Board. I believe Minnesota had passed its open meetings law by then, but maybe the commissioners weren’t quite sure what it meant. And if it wasn’t intended as secret, they surely didn’t announce it and I remember it held in a basement – as well as the surprised looks on their faces when I wandered in.)
Commissioners complained to the News Council again, saying the negative press could adversely affect the candidacy of some members in their County Board seats, in an election coming before the next paper would be out. We responded by posting a clarification in the window of the News-Chronicle’s office, mimicking an old town post and earning not criticism but plaudits from the News Council on the effort. From Mrs. Williams only came encouragement.
The award symbolized “the courage of a newspaper to change its mind,” the MNA judges wrote of the honor, which beat out all newspapers in the state, including dailies like the Duluth News Tribune. “Thanks for a real example of press freedom.”
More so, it symbolizes the power of an informed people utilizing the press – which is what this page is for. If there are no letters to the editor or commentaries here, it means you aren’t taking up the opportunity. This is your public forum. Let’s hear from you.
Oh, the plaque? Shari Melton, our front office maven, says she thinks it was thrown in a box with other mementoes from the Pleistocene period. Or maybe it’s migrated to someone else’s collection, making the rounds around the county.
That’s OK. It’s yours as much as ours.
Robin Washington is supervising editor of the News-Chronicle.