Three wishes for the news media in 2015

A symbolic old umbrella and the importance of ethics
A record player
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There’s a compact green umbrella in the passenger side door of my car. I’ve had it for more than 16 years but can’t remember the last time I used it in a rainstorm.

However, it has great symbolic value for me, a constant reminder of the ethics that we practiced at the York Daily Record when I was a reporter there from 1991 through 1998.

A roofing contractor, whose screen-printed name is still visible on the umbrella, sent it to the Daily Record, presumably (and mistakenly) thinking it would yield positive news coverage.

We regularly received unsolicited goodies that our receptionist would gather until she had enough to hold a silent auction. The editorial staff had an opportunity to bid on the items, with all proceeds donated to charity.

We didn’t raise a lot of money, but that wasn’t really the point. The purpose was to remind us that we weren’t in the business of getting freebies, even if they never would influence our coverage. Appearances matter; I paid something for that umbrella.

I relate this anecdote in the context of calling on reporters and editors everywhere to rededicate themselves in 2015 to the highest standards of ethics, particularly after a sometimes ugly 2014 for journalistic standards. This is one of my three wishes for the news media for the new year, a sort of sequel to a wish list I offered a year ago.

I walked out of the Daily Record newsroom for the last time in December 1998, effectively ending my daily journalism career. But the values I learned in journalism school and especially at the Daily Record have informed everything I have done professionally in the intervening years.

Journalism has been buffeted by the winds of change, but the principles of fairness, accuracy and unassailability are timeless. At its best, journalism is among the most noble of professions and the foundation of democracy. To wit, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Albeit more specific and less lofty than the first, my other wishes:

2. Return messages: The Daily Record sponsored a lot of “brown-bag lunches,” regularly inviting guests to join the editorial staff for informal continuing-education sessions over pizza or subs. Among our guests were David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of “Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets,” who went on to create HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It may have been Steele or another journalist whose words have stuck with me. “You return every call, right?” he said rhetorically, meaning that it was our responsibility as reporters to engage people who reached out to us. His point wasn’t one of altruism but good business sense: One never knows who will be a valuable source down the road.

I keep those words in mind, both when people call me and when I reach out to reporters. There’s just no excuse for a reporter or editor not to return an email or phone call from PR practitioners who go about their business respectfully and professionally. Failing to do so is lazy and rude.

This fall, I submitted a guest column to a newspaper outside central Pennsylvania. The editor and I exchanged email, leading me to believe that the column would run. But I have been unable to confirm this, despite searches of the newspaper’s website and Google – and subsequent phone calls and emails to the editor that have gone unanswered.

3. Make it easier to contact you: I recently prepared to send a news release to another daily newspaper outside central Pennsylvania with which I deal infrequently. The newspaper’s website listed editors’ email but not a full staff directory.

I called and asked the receptionist if there was a general email address for submitting news releases. Incredibly, she said she didn’t know. She transferred me to an editor who, to her credit, quickly and graciously got back to me. But needless to say, this was a highly inefficient process for me and for the newspaper.

News websites – but newspapers in particular, given their generally larger staffs and specialized beats – often lack the most basic contact information.

Not every news release or story pitch is going to be successful from a PR perspective, meaning that the result might be limited or even no coverage. But I always want to be sure that what I send to media outlets gets considered by the right person(s).

Therefore, it would be most helpful if websites included complete staff listings, contact information and beats.

The Daily Record has an “assistant managing editor for engagement and hyperlocal.” I’d like to know what that position entails because it didn’t exist when I was at the newspaper.

So much about daily journalism has changed since I left the Daily Record. I hope the silent auctions have continued.

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