Recently a reader objected to some Herald-Tribune coverage by giving his own personal perspective in a long and heartfelt email. We offered to publish this critique on our opinion page. After thinking it over, and maybe cooling down a bit, the reader said he would only give us permission if we promised not to edit what he wrote.
I told him it would be irresponsible to agree to such a stipulation. I thought, but did not say, that this would be true even if his prose were free of grammar and spelling errors (it wasn’t) and didn’t stoop to disrespectful personal attacks (it did). I also thought, but did not say, that when people want the opportunity to go off half-cocked, without nitpicky corrections for readability or civility—well, that’s what social media platforms are for.
I believe the difference between what you read in the Herald-Tribune and the unexpurgated content you can access online, ostensibly for free, comes down to the difference between an argument and a rant. Both serve useful purposes. And certainly many Americans have shown they place more trust in—or at least derive more comfort from—the gusher of thoughts and shares that flow from their friends, and friends of friends, than they do in the mediated news that professional journalism can provide.
Our reports are not perfect. And as many of you notice every day, the Herald-Tribune is not innocent of grammar and spelling lapses; nor does its tone uniformly achieve the neutrality and thoughtfulness that would represent our best self. The newspaper industry in America has struggled to adapt to drastic technological and economic disruptions, and in the process we shed that layer of eagle-eyed editors whose only task it was to hold us to our own highest standards.
Even before that loss, we were far from perfect. Newspapers are built every day, from scratch, by humans in a hurry. We mess up, repeatedly, in front of everybody.
But here’s why I want you to feel good about yourself for reading us: You are keeping alive a public discourse that our community and nation can’t afford to lose. Without our reporters, editors and photographers working to tell you what you didn’t know, as opposed to validating what you think you already know, the entire media food chain would perish of starvation. Local TV news crews would have little to show except PR videos. National news outlets would focus on Beltway politics and maybe the weather. And Facebook posters would have nothing to get outraged about; your feed would be dominated by pictures of cats.
OK, a lot of that is happening already.
But thanks to your support and loyalty, local journalism outlets are buying time to figure out how to stay alive. Your patience with our experiments and mistakes allows us to keep telling you what you didn’t know. And your amazing willingness to share your thoughts through letters to the editor and guest editorials—and generously trust us to package them for publication—perpetuates an open conversation that enriches us all.
Without this public exchange on neutral ground, we have no real community. We only have pockets of people agreeing among themselves, and trashing everyone else.
That unhappy reader who took issue with us said as much when he declined our publication offer: “My words have already been conveyed on social media and have been widely applauded for their accuracy.”
I thought, but did not say, that this sort of applause is not really very wide, or very deep.
Barbara Peters Smith has served as the opinions editor for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since November 2019. She has worked as a newspaper editor in Santa Barbara, Calif., and in Gainesville, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Fla. This article originally appeared in the Herald-Tribune. It is reprinted here with permission.