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A final column, filed just before the ultimate deadline


I read the news today oh, boy. About a lucky man who made the grade

JUNE 14, 2013 — The Constitution guarantees the right to a free press, but it can't guarantee that every town will have a great newspaper. It's up to a community itself to demand a paper that tells readers what they want to know and what they need to know. And it's up to the journalists who serve that community to know the difference.

The relationship between journalists and their community is often tenuous. Commission a survey and citizens will insist they want a watchdog press — until they get one. The reader who sees a cop car in a neighbor's driveway expects journalists to provide an explanation within hours. But what if the cop car is in YOUR driveway? Then it's nobody else's business.

Or as a few high school coaches believe: If you win, phone it in; if you lose, it ain't news.

Today I have the pleasure of retiring after four decades in journalism. I have watched the technology change but haven't seen much change in human nature.

Most business people are decent and honest. Most teenagers grow up to be law-abiding taxpayers. Most people in politics and government want to govern effectively and competently, but are often outflanked — and outworked — by the self-serving and unscrupulous.

Most citizens hope problems will resolve themselves, and yet are often taken aback when a problem becomes a crisis. And so it goes: too many people delay taking action until their ox is not just gored, but fatally wounded.

In many ways, though, the change in technology IS the story about journalism, and it is good, bad and ugly.

In almost every business, technology has produced better products for less money. But for journalism, technology has been a double-edged sword.

Technology allows the dissemination of news to be instantaneous, and it allows readers to retrieve information from yesterday, last week and decades ago. And yet, speed kills. How many times in the past decade has bad information been launched into cyberspace, where it will never be fully caught and extinguished by the truth?

The demands of the public upon the press have changed over the years, and it is difficult to explain the incongruity of it all.

For instance, we get calls to increase our coverage of a particular issue from people who read our product for free online, and thus give us no money to pay journalists to provide the additional information the reader seeks.

And we are getting a growing number of requests to delete online crime stories from years ago, because the information is now available indefinitely through Google searches.

(Caller: “I just finished college, and my pot arrest from when I was a sophomore is going to hurt my job prospects. Can you delete it?” Our reply: “We don't purge history. Try Russia.”)

Technology also allows governments to be more effective — and elusive.

Law enforcement does a daily email data dump of arrest activity, and governments send out press releases announcing the newest hire. It allows the most lowbrow of web aggregators to quickly post, and appear well-connected to the events of the day.

But if flesh and blood journalists don't keep track, law enforcement won't tell you about the crimes that remain unsolved, and government won't tell you about the person who was fired, which necessitated the need to hire someone to begin with.

Over the years as a journalist, I have evolved, but not much.

To readers who didn't like a story and accused me of “only trying to sell newspapers,” I always said: “Carmakers sell cars, shoemakers sell shoes. I make newspapers and I am trying to sell every one. Besides, there's not enough room at the house to take them home.”

To friends who asked me to not publish something embarrassing about a family member, I always said, “Between 9 and 5, I have no friends.”

To reporters who thought I was an insensitive boss, I always said, “This is a newspaper, not an encounter group.”

And to anyone who thinks journalism should be free, well, you are now getting what you pay for — governments that are running amuck, rather than governments that once considered running amuck until they were held accountable by legions of journalists.

I am sure I also said some things that were charming and endearing over the last four decades, but they don't come to mind right now.

During my 20 years as a journalist in South Carolina, it was my privilege to write about a principal who said his entire educational philosophy was developed during his six years as a POW during the Vietnam War; a high school that had two proms so parents didn't have to worry about white and black students socializing; a corrupt sheriff who eventually died in federal prison after his conviction for distributing drugs; volunteers who re-nest sea turtle eggs on barrier islands; and a disgraced former CIA operative who, along with his rogue friends, bought and then bankrupted a local business while using it as a front to sell undocumented weapons overseas. Even worse, the crying businessman told me those jackals shot and killed his dog.

In 19 years here working for the ethical and benevolent Johnson family, I have also had the privilege to guide some fine reporters. From out of the routine stories on murders, wind turbines and financial insolvency of school districts, several great stories emerged. A portion of our six-page story on the 10th Mountain Division's role in Somalia was used in the best-selling book, “Black Hawk Down.” Our reporters told you how a stepfather gambled away millions of dollars stolen from his famous fashion-model daughter, and how Watertown's current mayor was an accessory. More recently, a WDT reporter explained how SUNY Canton's on-line education adventure in Bosnia fell apart.

Our photography was outstanding when I got here, and it still is. And there are former Times reporters and photographers all over the country building on the fine careers they began here.

There are more stories out there and more journalists who will be happy to move to the north country to tell you about it. All that is needed to continue the great tradition of journalism here is for the public to demand and support it.

As for my career as a journalist, it was a life well-lived. I came, I saw and I conjectured — if you didn't give me a straight answer.

And as I have also often said: You can always trust a journalist… to be a journalist.

— 30 —

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