The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 29, 2013

Friendly persuasion

By Gary Grossman
For The Daily Item

— Several months ago, I received a note from the circulation department saying that a local elected official wanted me to know that he was canceling his subscription because he could not support the points of view expressed on our pages — mainly the points of view reflected in our editorials.

Because of my job responsibilities, that was a personal message. I called. We talked. Received and understood.

I do not write all the editorials or even a majority of them, but I write some and I am the responsible party for all.

John Finnerty and Bill Bowman have been editors of the opinion pages. A few others here have written occasional editorials as well. Recently, Bill Foley has been writing more of the cheers and jeers that appear Mondays.

I probably see 99 percent of all editorials prior to publication and give them more specific attention prior to publication than other elements of the newspaper.

By training and experience, the role of the editor or publisher in reviewing opinions is mainly to tighten the writing, keep the tone consistent and check the argument for reasonableness and fairness.

It is an imperfect process, but it probably works over time. There is evidence that it is working here. The editorial pages produced by Finnerty and Bowman have drawn more engagement, given letters to the editor more prominence, assembled a more thoughtful balance of columnists and earned peer recognition for local writers.

Jerry Nachman taught me that. Nachman, who died at age 57 of cancer, was a gifted newsman, honest, tenacious, thoughtful and funny. He held too many jobs to mention and was, in his final years, a vice president and editor-in-chief at MSNBC when the network was starting up.

I met Nachman when he was the editor of the New York Post. We served briefly together on a New York State newspaper association. Some people have likened Robert Duvall’s character in the 1994 movie “The Paper” to Nachman’s role at the Post.

Though we were barely acquainted, Nachman once explained how his trailing circulation street tabloid could compete against the Daily News, the New York Times and the slick, colorful magazine-style suburban Long Island Newsday that was peeling off the commuter market.

At the time, I was the editor of an off-size tabloid in a few counties north of the city, working the commuters who rode Metro-North for an hour or more into Manhattan.

Nachman squeezed the Post into a sustainable niche with three steps — business pages that explained in plain language the sports — like drama of successes and failures in the financial center, a contrarian editorial page and the brash and sensational story of the day.

It was the attention Nachman gave the editorial page that stuck. Readers didn’t have to agree with regular columnists or even the newspaper’s points of view. They were interested in how others interpreted the streaming facts, surprising events and apparent trends — both ideas they extracted from the news and the passion with which they expressed them.

Today, there is an overload of opinion and interpretation packaged into sound bites and tweets. The compression of thoughts and broadening of access produces a competition for re-tweets that drives this more diverse universe of opinion toward ever-tighter and more caustic expression.

Regular readers noticed in recent months the appearance of more comment drawn from our Facebook pages and reactions acquired through digital dialogue.

Thanks to the generally decent and respectful manners found in the communities we serve, even dialogue around topics that arouse passionate debate has been mostly within bounds, only rarely peppered with personal attack or abusive language.

We are having good democratic discussions in the Valley. We hope the newspaper is helping that along.

That disappointed local office holder and I have chatted several times and worked with each other since he so pointedly cancelled his subscription.

I asked him once if he was still making a point of not reading the paper.  “Oh, I still read it regularly,” he told me. “I just won’t pay for it.”

The man works hard at improving the public good and working on behalf of the people who elected him. That counts. To do that, people do not need to think alike.