Colleagues and competition

Last week, I had the good fortune to appear on a The Good Talk podcast alongside legendary local newsman Jim Olson of KX News to discuss a number of serious topics about the role of media in society and as a watchdog of government.

Interestingly, this is the first time I have met Mr. Olson. We’ve passed through the same events and such, but since we’re usually both working, it’s just happened to work out that way. He was a great fellow guest and conversationalist, gracious to a fault, and he clearly knows and loves his work. I look forward to getting to know him better in the year ahead.

The discussion included the challenges media faces today in changing technological and sociological environments. While some might think that broadcast and print news are very different, it seems the challenges faced by both are similar. That prompted some reflection on the relationships between different journalists working for different news outlets in the same or over-lapping environments. In many cases, those relationships might not be what you think.

About 25 years ago, I was editor of a paper in a market of about 80,000 people with a young staff. One excellent reporter had a fixation on beating other media to a particular story. This was just pre-internet so it was a matter of getting things into print or onto the airwaves. As I began to see the fixation become just a bit too much, I sat him down and shared my policy on “scooping” the other guy. It went something like this: “Journalists’ jobs are not to compete with each other. Instead, we share a fight against ignorance and apathy.”

Sure, in a world of ratings and limited advertising dollars, and now with competition from the internet and a whole big audience of people out there who actually prefer fake news, that seems a little naive. This is probable even more so today. But hey, I was in my 20s, the newspaper became a huge commercial and critical success, so it was easy to pontificate over such high minded principles – particularly in that time and space where there was a legit journalist bar where everyone popped in after deadline.

Of course, media competes on the business level. It is when we forget that it is a business rivalry and it negatively impacts reporting that we have problems. Rushing to get the story first means too much of a chance to get the story wrong. As journalists, the best thing – the only thing really – we can contribute to the business rivalry is to make the best product we can to attract readers. I feel that’s where the competition stops – and notice that doing our best has nothing to do with obsessing over rivalries or rushing to social media with a story that’s just wrong.

So, maybe there is at least a little truth buried in the hubris of a principle I came up with a quarter-century ago.

Readers might be surprised how frequently we work with other media around the state and region; generally print media for practical reasons.

Over the course of an average month, we will get requests from newspapers all over to use a story we might have published that they might like to subsequently use (crediting MDN of course, so it benefits both parties). We routinely ask other papers for a sports photo here or there. We get requests from papers from the East Coast to Canada, and also from organizational websites or specialty pubs. These are in addition to our commitment to Associated Press and a special relationship we’ve carved out with Forum Publishing.

I can’t speak for all of the people with whom we have dealings like this, but I would characterize these relationships as fair, friendly and even enjoyable. Only other editors really understand the scope of it all; the same goes for reporters. We might not share the same foxhole in the battle against public apathy, but there’s an alliance there nonetheless.

Personally, I enjoy it when I get a few minutes in a week to chat with another editor or reporter from the region; and I have developed a fondness for some of the folk at other media outlets. When there is any sort of rivalry, it is at least a friendly one.

Make no mistake, media is a highly competitive industry filled with driven people. How that competition manifests is just a little different than some might imagine.

That’s what occurred to me while enjoying a friendly chat with a local news legend last week.