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It is all in how you write the story

By Staff | Oct 20, 2013

I used to teach a class about newspapers.

Actually, my ‘dog and pony show’ had three distinct parts. The history of newspapers, how to produce your own newspaper, and journalism ethics.

My opening routine went something like this:

Question: Who can publish a newspaper? Answer: Anyone.

Question: Where do you get the permit to start printing a newspaper? Answer: Don’t need one. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives every single citizen the right to publish a newspaper, if they so desire. It’s called Freedom of the Press.

Question: What are the rules for publishing a newspaper? Answer: Just like Butch Cassidy said about a knife fight, there are no rules. That same First Amendment says you can publish anything you want. You can call your paper “Fred’s Gazette” and fill it with all sorts of stories about space aliens and who really killed JFK, if you want to.

Of course, that is when I launched into the fact that newspapers are a business, and if you don’t make any money at it, it gets old after a while. You will want to publish a product that people will subscribe to and read and that businesses will pay you to print their advertising for goods and services.

Nowadays that philosophy is a bit outdated.

The Internet and its citizen journalists (a.k.a. bloggers) can post anything they want and do it virtually for free. I am not even sure they even care if anyone reads their stuff.

That is where journalism ethics comes in.

Those of us in the mainstream journalism business try to have accurate stories and remain as unbiased in writing them as we can.

But not everyone does. Internet ‘citizen journalists’ and papers such as the Weekly World News sometimes play fast and loose with the facts. Or make them up altogether.

I suspect that many of our predecessors in this business did as well. That comes under the heading of the history of newspapers.

Some editors of small town papers in the 1920s and 1930s embellished stories at will and freely interjected their opinions into everything they wrote.

The Frost Tribune is a good example.

TJ Johnson brought in a few copies of the Frost paper from the 1920s that he had used to decorate his bar “TJ’s” when he ran it in Frost.

The editor obviously had a sense of humor.

Here is a sample from one of his front page stories from 1921:

Mule Kicks Thief Thru Barn Wall – Hot Time Follows

John Shoots Twice, Misses the Thief and Ruins the Top of the Barn

Last Monday night about 2, aroused from sleep by a terrific crash followed by two cannon shot and heavy thunder, caused by the vigorous kicking of a mule in John Underdahl’s barn in St. Louis Park, one of the suburbs of Frost.

The mule had kicked a “milk thief” through the side of the barn and hoisted the milk pail to the top of the windmill.

Mr. Underdahl had discovered that a ‘milk thief” had been milking his best cow every night. After careful study, he borrowed a live mule with good sturdy hind legs from one of his neighbors and placed the animal in the cow’s stall. When the “night milker” started milking the mule, the excitement began.

John hurried into action and with only one shoe, grabbed his shotgun and turned on the electric lights and beat it for the battle ground. He shot twice and hit the ventilator on the top of the barn once. He claims that the one shot of red pepper hit the mark at which he was aiming. Every person in the city who cannot sit down comfortably is viewed with suspicion.

Chief of Police Willmert arrived on the scene in a few minutes with one of Maland’s seed microscopes and went over the ground carefully. He observed that the “milk thief” wore a woman’s high heeled shoe on the left foot and a man’s shoe on the right foot and the distance between footprints was 9 feet, 11 inches and that the electric bill for that evening was $1.14. The milk pail was recognized by Ted Gullord as having been purchased at his store and pointed to the fact that there wasn’t a single dent on the pail, showing exceptional quality for Gullord’s pails.

The police departments of the adjoining cities of Marna, Podunk and an obscure village known as Bricelyn, have been notified. Mr. Underdahl has posted a liberal reward of free milk for one year to any party finding the culprit.

We just don’t write like this in newspapers anymore. And, that is a shame.

Or, perhaps it is a good thing.