It’s good for the news staff to get involved

Published 9:27 am Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

The reporters, editors, sales people, graphic designers, managers and other people at the Albert Lea Tribune are involved in this community. It seems that everyone in Albert Lea knows that, which is good.

At some papers, they frown on involvement, especially for newsroom employees. For instance, when I was a cub reporter at the Ames Tribune, I was invited to be on a committee at Iowa State University to review and rewrite the student handbook. After all, even though I had a full-time job, I happened to be a student in my final semester. My editor — a man I very much admire to this day — asked me to step down from the handbook committee because the newspaper might cover its results. He didn’t want the newspaper to have a conflict of interest or a perceived conflict of interest.

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In fact, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalists should act independently and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

And I agree.

But where do we draw the line at a community newspaper, like the Albert Lea Tribune? After all, newspapers cover churches. Should a job require its employees to not go to church? Newspapers cover retail businesses. Should a job disallow employees to sign up for rewards cards because they might write about those businesses? What about restaurants or coffee shops I like? Is it a conflict to write about a place where you like the service? Or how about writing about a school where my child attends? Or a school district? Or how about service clubs? Is it a conflict to clean ditches on the highway but, at later time, write about the county’s Adopt-A-Highway program?

The fact is, journalists are people, too. And no matter where an organization draws a line to prevent perceptions, everything boils down to integrity. At a bigger paper, it’s easy to have someone else do the work if there might be a conflict. But at a weekly or a small daily, like ours, there is no way avoid the conflicts. We have to trust the writer to be objective and independent. For instance, I have a son in a school in Albert Lea, but there is no way I am going to avoid writing about Albert Lea Area Schools. I never let my son’s experiences in school influence my journalism. Journalists are trained to separate the two.

What would the news be anyway? “Editor’s son is good at counting” or “Kindergarten teacher excels.”

I will say, though, that my son’s schooling gives me a good handle on what parents with kids in school experience. That can come in handy for asking insightful questions about an array of subjects. I know the town better for it.

What’s more, we find that our readers like that our news staff is like them — going to church, kids in school, involved in service clubs, appearing in plays and volunteering to clean ditches. We allow our journalists to be involved in the community so they can see life through the eyes of the readers.

The Ames Tribune was sold three years after I started. There was new management, and I had a new editor. He took a new tact. I was encouraged to join the Ames Jaycees, and the Tribune paid my dues. The paper wanted to be more like a community newspaper, with its staff tied to the town and more pages with scrapbook content, like submitted photos of people catching fish and passing checks.

A conflict of interest is a line that can be drawn in many ways, and different newspapers draw it in different places.

Politics and profits are where true conflicts exist. You won’t see Tribune staff running for a school board, a city council, a county board, a legislative seat or anything all that political or controversial. You also won’t see a Tribune staff member write news about which he or she has a personal stake for profit.

For instance, if a reporter has a side gig as a guitar player, he or she won’t write a preview of an upcoming show. However, another staff member could write about it, if it is newsworthy enough, and the fact that the guitar player is a Tribune staffer would be disclosed in the copy.

We allow involvement that betters the community mainly in apolitical ways and with little to no controversy.

For instance, I am the president-elect of the Noon Kiwanis Club. I am a member of the Flying Lea Disc Golf Club, and I served on the Albert Lea Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for six years. True, there was controversy last year with an expanded disc golf course, but you will notice that, because it was controversial, I didn’t write about it. Other staff members handled it.

Special Projects Editor Kelli Lageson is on the board for the United Way of Freeborn County and is part of the Albert Lea Beyond the Yellow Ribbon group. City Editor Sarah Stultz is on the board for the Albert Lea Salvation Army. Community Editor Brandi Hagen isn’t on a board, but she has side jobs as a server at Perkins and a wedding photographer. Sports Editor Micah Bader began in January and is new to the community.

There are other people at the Tribune also involved, such as Publisher Scott Schmeltzer belonging to the Rotary Club and Catherine Buboltz the Daybreakers Kiwanis Club and the entire company belonging to the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce. We are proud that our community embraces its local news media in this way. Thank you.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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