A Lesson in Journalistic Humility

We need to remember what we think is important, reader wishes not the same

Short takes on the media:

—I got an early lesson in humility starting out in my career as a professional typist. My first job was at the daily newspaper in my hometown. The emphasis was local news and I covered city-county government, so I had front page bylines virtually every day. I also had a column with a picture logo on the Sunday op-ed page.

At the end of the first year, in late summer, the sports editor came around. He wanted to start a trendy new feature called "football picks." Since they only had two guys in the sports department they were drafting reporters. Okay. Fine. I'd play. I had been away from the area for some time in Vietnam then was busy in college. I had no idea what was going on in high school sports. So the first week I just picked against all the schools I hated—those would be the ones that beat my team when I was in high school.

The day after it ran I started getting calls from high school classmates. Most of them had a question and a statement. When did I start working at the paper? And "you don't know squat about football."

The experience taught me that while people read local news, they don't necessarily pay any attention to who writes it. And I remembered what I had forgotten: High school football is important and you need to pay attention. So I got better at it.

The thing about the media business is that what we in the profession think is important is not necessarily the things the reading and viewing public think are important. We want the scoop and the front page splash. The readers may just want the obits, the crossword, and will raise hell at the suggestion of getting rid of Snuffy Smith.

The best investigative reporters Tennessee has produced will never be as well-known as a Todd Howell, the unflappable weather guy on WBIR. Or Heartland's Bill Landry. To this day there are still fans who talk about weather woman Margie Ison and the News Sentinel's incomparable columnist Carson Brewer or the Journal's iconoclastic Jim Dykes.

There are former Tennessee journalists who have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes: David Halberstam, Bill Kovach, the News Sentinel's Bill Dedman. Who? Yeah, that's my point.

—Talking about football picks. I wish News Sentinel sports editor John Adams would rein in PicksPanel administrator John Adams. The PicksPanel administrator's levity and interspecies hiring policy is making a mockery of this venerable newspaper tradition. Next thing you know he will be ridiculing fantasy football as a colossal waste of time. Oh, wait…

—Things are tough in the media business. Ad revenues are down. The Internet and 400 cable channels and rising costs are causing staff cuts and pay freezes. But take heart reporters. You could be working at Soap Opera Digest. (Goodbye Erica and "All Your Children.")

—The number of newspapers who have a political cartoonist on staff continues to dwindle. We ought to stop every now and then and tell the News Sentinel's Charlie Daniel how much we appreciate him. He is the rare cartoonist who has enjoyed poking fun at state and local issues. No one doubts he had the talent to "go national" and syndicate. But he chose to stay near his beloved Tar Heels, his only vice. I also really like Metro Pulse's Elizabeth Bricquet, may she live long and prosper. And in an abundance of riches, football season brings us Dan Proctor's Game Day cartoons, demonstrating his sharp wit.

—I am amused to read about Glee celeb Ryan Murphy being a former News Sentinel columnist. Murphy interned at the paper one summer and was without a doubt the worst police reporter we ever sent on assignment. But he did have a facility to write witty observations on current fashion trends. Our Yankee managing editor loved it and had him write a bottom-of-the-front-page column every Monday, illustrated, if memory serves, by Dan Proctor. The only one I recall was a meditation on yellow ties. The ME wore yellow ties the rest of the year.