Yesterday I covered a shooting, today I served as the complaint department. There is no such thing as a dull day at a newspaper.
A man called the managing editor today outraged about what a columnist said about him, demanding an apology from the paper. The man insulted the editor, and the editor essentially told him goodbye.
The man was a source for one of my stories this week, a story about water in Fryeburg, which, because of Nestle and the bottled water industry, is always a contentious subject. The man called me later in the afternoon repeating his demand that the paper apologize to him.
It’s interesting to be in this new position, because usually I save my aggressive demeanor for politicians in the midst of their political dance. As the news editor, however, there seem to be more and more situations where being resolute is crucial. A paper needs to have a spine, and that often falls on the editors (although our publisher has no problem ruffling feathers).
I told the man I appreciate where he was coming from, but if he had a complaint he could send a letter. The paper would not be issuing any apology. If he had a problem with the columnist’s piece her email was at the bottom of the column. Columns, I said, include opinions, and they are often driven by the news of the day. He was an elected official (to the water district, granted, but in Fryeburg water is a hot topic), and therefore it was not unreasonable for a columnist to be critical. Also, I said, it would behoove him to treat the managing editor with more respect. He did not write the article.
We have had some great reporting lately on several contentious issues, from the Bartlett School District to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office to Fryeburg and water. Several of these have caused blowback, but it is the best kind. It is the kind where we are challenging public officials, holding them accountable for their statements and verifying that what they say is accurate. Sometimes that takes someone willing to look someone in the face and say, “I hear you, but what we wrote was fair. If you’d like to be interviewed for a followup story that would be reasonable.” That’s what I’m doing a lot of these days. What I’ve taken to telling people is, look, the truth doesn’t come out in one day. We find something out, and that leads to something else, which leads to something else. In the end what we are striving to do is get the facts out there, and sometimes that takes two stories. Or five. Or 15.