By Gianna Barberia,
“We’ll be sharing our war stories,” Earl Brechlin, editor of the Mount Desert Islander of Bar Harbor, Maine, said to a laughing audience.
Brechlin was not describing the war on terror or even President Donald Trump’s newly declared “running war with the media.”
Brechlin was describing the ongoing and often tedious struggles between community newspapers and their communities.
Brechlin spoke on a panel with Paul Miller, executive editor of the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, and Rod Doherty, former executive editor of Foster’s Daily Democrat of Dover, N.H., at the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention.
The panel discussion, which took place at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel Saturday, Feb. 25, was titled “Heart and backbone of community journalism.” About 70 people attended.
The discussion focused on major difficulties community newspapers consistently face, with the biggest involving keeping and maintaining relationships and attempts to bribe journalists.
Doherty, now retired, described a story from his early newspaper days when he interviewed a chef at a vocational school. Doherty said the chef later opened a restaurant near the newspaper where Doherty was a reporter and which he and his colleagues frequented. Doherty became friends with the chef; the chef occasionally bought him beers and provided him with Patriots tickets, Doherty said. The chef eventually made a special request of Doherty, he said.
“He said, ‘I’m running for city council, and I need you to write good stories for me to help me get elected,’” Doherty recalled.
Doherty said that, at the time, he was confused and told the chef that he could not do that, and the chef replied: “What did you think all those beers and tickets were for?”
“It was enlightening,” Doherty said. “I was being bribed, and I didn’t even know it!”
Brechlin described his own attempted bribery story, in which he was offered tickets to travel to Key West in exchange for a good review.
“Certainly, you can’t take that,” Brechlin said.
Although the audience chuckled at the anecdotes, the three panelists reminded the audience that you can never accept gifts or services from any news sources, because it is a conflict of interest.
“You can’t afford to make a mistake,” Doherty said.
Bribes are not the only dilemma community journalists face, however.
Many journalists struggle with maintaining friendships and relationships while doing their job.
After the local fire chief proposed hiring two additional firefighters, the Keene Sentinel looked into firefighter salaries, finding that many firefighters made large chunks of money in overtime pay, Miller said. As a result, the Keene Sentinel decided to publish the salaries of all of the firefighters in the county, a decision Miller said he found personally hard because of his relationships within the department.
“I had two really close friends in the fire department staff,” Miller said. “When that story came out and was published, let’s just say we didn’t have any friends in the fire department.”
Doherty said he had few friends when he was a reporter, and that he found it hard not to strain relationships through his work, even with those closest to him.
“My son was in the police log; I didn’t cut it. My wife was in an accident; we ran the story,” Doherty said. “Was it pleasant? No.”
Doherty said those doing newspaper work are journalists first, and that you need to relay that to those with whom you are friendly.
Miller said: “You just have to know that there’s the potential down the road to hold (your friends) accountable for something.”
Brechlin said: “News and readers come first. Then, you can worry about patching up relationships.”
Although the atmosphere at the panel discussion was mostly lighthearted, many audience members voiced serious concerns.
One woman said that because she reports in the town where she grew up, she finds it hard to be taken seriously as a reporter by officials who have known her and her family for years.
“Publish their salaries and then they’ll take you seriously,” Brechlin joked.
The panelists said journalists need to command authority and respect.
“They need to know you’re a person who would hold people accountable,” Miller said. “Your primary job is serving the people.”
Miller concluded the workshop by giving the audience some advice and assurance: “Don’t underestimate the power of the newspaper, no matter your circulation.”
‘You just have to know that there’s the potential down the road to hold (your friends) accountable for something.’
—Paul Miller, Executive editor
Keene (N.H.) Sentinel
‘News and readers come first. Then, you can worry about patching up relationships.’
—Earl Brechlin, Editor
Mount Desert Islander, Bar Harbor, Maine
‘It was enlightening. I was being bribed, and I didn’t even know it!’
—Rod Doherty, Former executive editor
Foster’s Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.
‘Dont’ underestimate the power of the newspaper, no matter your circulation.’