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Jellico: Don’t blame Press for your mess

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By Brent Schanding

Last week, a LaFollette Press reporter received a complaint from Jellico’s first lady, Doris Stiers, about its news coverage of the beleaguered town.
(“Town’s dysfunction seen in protests, online posts against officials” LaFollette Press, March 30.)
She — and presumably some others in Jellico — believes Mayor Les Stiers and town officials are often unjustly portrayed in the Press as incompetent, irresponsible or just down right ignorant.
I can assure readers, that’s never this paper’s intent.
While Mayor Stiers is always given the opportunity to comment in articles, he often is not available to talk to reporters. His wife, Doris Stiers, was also given the opportunity recently to publicly address her concerns in a proper letter in the Press.
She too declined.
But just minutes later, she jabbed this publication in online forums and social media networks.
These types of behind-the-back attacks further illustrate the primary point Press journalists have nailed down in their coverage of Jellico this past year: That political pettiness must be put aside for the betterment of the town and its people.
I believe it’s courageous — if shortsighted and a bit vain — for Stiers & Co. to pick a fight with someone who buys newsprint by the ton. But before this turns into a battle between David and Goliath, let it be known that while the Press does not censor those critical of its reporting, neither does it sit idly by as a bankrupted town continues to spiral deeper into despair because of its poor leadership.
When officials and townspeople publicly fight with each other, our readers will hear about it in the Press. If it ruffles the feathers of some politicians, so be it.
Few, if any, rational parties seem to be contesting the accuracy of details we’ve reported about the town’s woes — details that connect the dots between Jellico’s financial problems and its dysfunctional leadership.
Nevertheless, more than a few have asked why our coverage of the town is so critical.
The simple answer is this: We do not make the news — we just report it. And our coverage of the troubles in Jellico, albeit critical, is justifiably newsworthy. Besides, it’s no big secret how journalists assess a story’s newsworthiness. We look for a few common traits, when considering any story:
• Significance. The number of people affected by the story is important. A town of 2,500 held politically hostage by its bickering elected officials is more significant than, for example, one person who loses their dog.
• Proximity. This paper focuses on hyper-local community issues because they hold more importance to our readers. In the grand scope, few towns in America have been financially mismanaged so poorly that they’ve been taken over by the state. Jellico is in our backyard, meaning its proximity hits close to home to nearly all of our readers — especially those taxpayers who live and work in the town.  
• Prominence. Well-known folks — such as elected town officials — receive more media coverage because they are more prominent. They’ve also put themselves in the spotlight as public-office holders. That means they are more open to criticism. If you don’t want to be scrutinized, don’t run for public office — post a sign on your property that says “no trespassing.” Hundreds of our readers do just that, and we tend to leave those private citizens well enough alone, unless they should insert themselves into the spotlight by committing a crime or doing something astounding, such as winning an award.   
• Conflict. Opposition between people often results in drama. Stories with conflict are often quite newsworthy. I hear from readers each week who claim they’d rather read “good news.” But data from our website figures show readers overwhelmingly continue to click on dramatic stories that involve conflict. This phenomenon is similar to America’s obsession with reality TV and talk shows. While people say they hate watching others publicly air their dirty laundry, there’s an obvious market for such TV drama. To be clear, we do report on good news. Just last week, we published stories on a new McDonald’s opening in Jellico, and we reported on the high school’s successful fishing team. In the past, we’ve published articles on book signings at the town’s public library and dozens of photos from festivals and events in the town to an open house for the obstetrics department. In fact, we produce a whole section of features each week, which highlights good and fun news in our county.
• Continuity and frequency. A story that is already in the news gathers inertia. It’s partly because the media and the public has familiarized itself with the topic. Remember the story of the missing Malaysian airliner? (How can you forget?) We’re as tired of hearing about it as you, but its continuity seems to have taken on a life of its own that’s bigger than both the media and news consumers. On the same note, if Jellico’s frequent problems persist, those problems will frequently be reported until they are solved. (If you’ve read this far and you’re tired of hearing about these problems, skip ahead to my solution in the last paragraphs.)
• Meaningfulness. Stories are more meaningful if the topic speaks to readers on a similar cultural level. We know these people in Jellico. They are our neighbors. They go to school and church with us. We see them at the store. We assign more meaning to their lives than we would to strangers because we share in a common culture.
It’s also worth saying that newsworthy events emerging from Jellico’s town hall these days are only as good as what we reporters observe and hear from our sources. Perceptions of the town and its leaders vary depending on whom you ask.
To get to the truth, our reporters rely on more than one source in order to paint the most accurate picture of what’s really going on there.  
In that way, journalism works similarly to a courtroom.
A judge (namely, me as the editor, in this instance) hears multiple sides of a case before conferring a ruling.
Does the judge always reach the right decision? No. And neither do I.
But, rest assured I heavily rely on evidence to reach any conclusion of fact.
And here is the overwhelming evidence about Jellico to consider:  
• It’s bankrupted.
• The state comptroller is now in charge of making nearly all of its spending decisions.
• Officials fight publicly — both verbally and physically, according to some accounts. They spend as much time suing each other, as they do working with each other.
• Town services and morale have suffered.
• Residents are fed up.
What do I derive from this?
Those in charge with governing the town must be held accountable.
To the mayor and his board of alderman: It’s often difficult to perform a self-assessment. But that’s exactly what’s needed.
Each of you must objectively examine yourself and ask: Am I part of the solution?
If not, you’re part of the problem — and it’s time to step aside.
It takes real leadership to admit YOU created a mess that cannot easily be cleaned. Don’t blame the Press for your mess.
In journalism, there’s an old adage that says, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
If Jellico officials want to stay out of our 1A headlines, they will need more than a Band-Aid to stop the bloodshed they’ve already caused.
But at this point, it seems the hemorrhaging is out of control.
An amputation of the mayor and town officials may be necessary to save what’s left of the struggling town body.

Brent Schanding is the Editor of the LaFollette Press. Email him at
bschanding@lafollettepress.com.