My Turn: Editorial questions for the Empire

Posted: Monday, October 15, 2001

The Empire's Oct. 7 editorial (or "publisherial") appeared to be chiding residents of Juneau who have complained that the Opinions Page is divisive.

I don't need a civics class refresher. I understand the importance of free speech, free press, and community debate. I say, let that woman write as many letters as she wants excusing her own math while making fun of the candidate's. And let that other woman explain how females are innately better at running the world. And let that guy write that other people who write are whiners. And print the letter you receive tomorrow that criticizes my letter or ignores my ideas in favor of pointing out my petty grammatical errors or (my favorite) the one that will somehow manipulate logic to imply that if people write letters like this one the capital's gonna move.

In fact, the editorial page is my favorite section of the paper. It's got the best writing and the best humor. It allows us to scrutinize and humiliate our politicians to keep them honest and humble.

No, I am not disturbed by the range of opinions expressed by the citizens of Juneau in the letters to the editor; I am disturbed by the fact that publisher Don Smith has taken over the editorial column of the Empire.

I was surprised this summer when I noticed that more and more of the editorials were written by publisher Don Smith. Isn't it the editor or editorial staff who is supposed to write the editorials, not the publisher?

The publisher is supposed to take care of the business end and make sure the paper makes money. The writers are supposed to report and reflect on events with accuracy and fairness without worrying about the financial repercussions of someone disliking what has been printed. This division of labor is very important to the integrity of a paper. Readers are asked to put a lot of trust into their paper. In return, the paper must take every step that it can to assure the reader that the content of the newspaper is not compromised by its need to keep its advertisers happy. I am definitely not trying to insinuate that the Empire's stories or editorials are compromised in this way. That would be a very grave accusation, and I have no reason to believe it to be true. I am simply saying that they owe it to the reader to give us this traditional boundary - you know, to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety. This summer, another writer questioned the Empire's unusual editorial practices. There was no response. I'd like to request an explanation if I can do so without it being construed as a personal attack.

I'm also wondering why these editorials are signed at all. If one looks at other newspapers - the New York Times, Washington Post, Seattle Times - one will notice that these papers' editorials have no individual's name attached. Are we meant to read these as the product of a board of people whose conflicting opinions are consulted in order to create an editorial that is strengthened by fairness and objectivity? And how are we to read Don Smith's? Should these editorials be read as the product of one man - one man's values, one man's emotions, one man's prejudices? Are his pieces like those of any of us schmucks who decide to contribute two cents to the Opinions Page? Do his just happen to appear in the favored spot because, hey, it's his paper and he can do whatever he wants?

Additionally, what are the criteria that determine whose letter to the editor gets elevated to the "Guest Editorial" spot?

I would also like to know the role of the Citizens Editorial Advisory Board, which was described as "a good microcosm of the community" that "represents a rich diversity of opinion" in last Sunday's editorial. Do they shape the content of the editorials? This seems unlikely, for Don Smith's adamantly pro-development editorials are obviously not tempered by the diversity of opinion that would exist on an advisory board made up of a cross-section of Juneau. What are they there for?

Publisher Don Smith, Editor Steve Reed, I think we deserve a response.

Jessica Paris has been living in Juneau and reading the Empire for the last six years.

Publisher's note

First of all I want to thank you for your letter. We gladly publish all letters to the editor as long as they meet the basic guidelines. We are not into censorship. Since your letter asks for a direct response to a number of questions, I will do my best to provide the answers. To address your concern about who is supposed to write editorials, you should know that some publishers write editorials and some don't. I have been writing editorials since I took my first publisher's job in 1993. My predecessor at the Empire also wrote editorials, as have many other Alaska newspaper publishers over the past 100 years. Editors also write editorials. Steve Reed writes editorials for this newspaper whenever he has the time and is so inclined.

A newspaper publisher's job extends far beyond financial responsibility. The ultimate responsibility for the content and editorial voice of the newspaper also rests with the publisher. It is true that large metropolitan newspapers frequently use editorial boards to guide their editorial policy. However, this is not practical at a small newspaper. There is nothing unusual or extraordinary about the Empire's editorial practices as your letter implies.

I sign my editorials for the same reason we require attribution from those who write letters to the editor and contribute to Word of Mouth. If we say that it is important to identify who is saying what on our opinion page then that should hold true for the writers of editorials. The first publisher I worked for took great pride in his editorials and always signed them. I also respect Steve Reed's adherence to the tradition of unsigned editorials.

I freely put my beliefs on the line each time I write and editorial, and all who care to disagree are welcomed to challenge me on the same page as you have done today. We are going to disagree on many things, but I always place the best interests of this community first and try to gather as much research as time permits before putting the words down.

Regarding the question about the guest editorial, I choose to place the Johnson and Kappler letter of Aug. 15 in the newspaper's opinion space because the message was one the entire community needed to hear. Their message was far more powerful than anything I could have written.

The question about the purpose of the editorial board can be answered by referring to the editorial on the subject dated April 15 in our online archives. In short the editorial board is extremely valuable to me and to this newspaper in many ways. Since the board meets once a month, it is not possible for the board to engage in a practical way in forming daily editorial opinions.

Don Smith,


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