The whole story

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2005

My first job out of college was writing for a small weekly newspaper in West Virginia. It was owned by a man named Jim Comstock, a legend in community journalism only a notch or two below William Allen White.

Jim was old, really old, when I went to work for him, but he still worked long days publishing two weekly newspapers and writing virtually everything himself, as well as overseeing design and production.

I sat in a back office with my electric typewriter knocking out stories on county commission or school board meetings and police reports. Occasionally on a Tuesday afternoon Jim would poke his head in and say he needed an editorial from me n in about 10 minutes or something ridiculous like that.


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Once when this happened I wrote about a school board vote. We had one old, decrepit man on the Nicholas County School Board who was appointed for some reason after the seat became vacant. He never said a word and always voted the same way a certain, dominant block did, no

questions asked, which is why I'm sure he was appointed.

I banged out my editorial and turned it into the woman who set the type. She cranked it out and pasted it on the page.

Jim was reading over the pages before sending them to camera to be shot. When he read my editorial, he literally screamed.

"What in the $&*# are you trying to do? he yelled in front of the entire office,, "Get us sued?"

In the piece I had referred to the old man on the school board as a "stooge," which is precisely what he was.

"You can't call someone something like that in print," he said.

"Well, the Charleston Gazette does it all time," I countered.

"We're not the @*#&(#& Charleston Gazette," he said. "That's why they're in court all the time."

Jim went on to explain that that guy is our neighbor, and perhaps our friend. That we'll run into him and his family in the grocery store probably within the next few days. He's doing a job, probably the best way he knows how and while it's our job to point out mistakes and make recommendations, it's not to call him names, ridicule him or, short of him being accused of criminal wrongdoing, attempt to have him deprived of his livelihood.

That was my first lesson in journalism and it always stuck with me n probably because I was quaking in my shoes as it was being screamed at me. Anyway, I never forgot it.

What I'm leading up to is that I appear to have become the central figure in a whispering campaign surrounding one of our columnists at the News-Herald.

Roger Leonard's column did not publish Tuesday in the News-Herald. I chose not to publish, as is my prerogative with anything that comes through the front door.

As a small, community newspaper, we rely on submissions from readers to fill our paper each day, and while weighty political or governmental matters are certainly important to me, I try not to delude myself into thinking that is why people read the Suffolk News-Herald. There's enough of that stuff in the Virginian-Pilot, Daily Press and three television stations in the area to satisfy most people's cravings for it. If that's all we did, we wouldn't be here long.

It's the photos and stories of people's accomplishments, and those of their children and grandchildren, that people want to read in the News-Herald, regardless of how mundane. While they might not always be "front page" news, sometimes they are and they are as important to us as anything on the front.

It's the same with our opinion page. It would be impossible for a staff our size to generate a full page of opinion six days a week n at least and be able to anything else. As such, we rely on letters to the editor and local columnists from Suffolk to round out the page. I think we do a good job of it most of the time, presenting a page that on most days is 100 percent about things that impact people in Suffolk.

Roger Leonard is one of our columnists. Roger is not an employee of the paper and is not paid for the work he does for us. Like others who contribute to our page, he has his own reasons for wanting to write for us. I've always figured those were personal and never asked about them. I'm just grateful he does. He usually presents an angle to an issue that I've not thought of. I'm not saying whether its right or wrong, just different from what I've thought, been told, or led to believe. I don't always agree with but I think he presents it well, though at times it's over the top and unnecessarily confrontational. Most people I've talked to either love him or hate him, typically the measure of a good newspaper columnist.

Roger's column runs on Tuesdays and was conspicuous by its absence in last Tuesday's paper.

He submitted it on Saturday night, a day later than usual, and for whatever reason I did not read it until mid-morning Monday.

The column called for City Manager Steve Herbert to be fired.

That bothered me. Not because of any pressure from the city or fear of retribution, just because I didn't think it was the place for the Suffolk News-Herald to cause to be published something so inflammatory.

For good or ill, in the minds of the readers, Leonard, like Robert Pocklington and Evelyn Wall, other columnists for us, is associated with the newspaper. If they write it, people think it's coming from us.

To me, it was like my earlier incident. I didn't think it was a community newspaper's place to call for someone in city government to be fired just because I disagreed with them. I wouldn't write it and I wouldn't let anyone else here as long as I'm in charge. Short of calling for someone's lynching, I can't think of anything more devastating to someone than losing their job and I'm not going to have a part in it without more compelling reasons than a difference of opinion.

The Suffolk News-Herald is not the Washington Post, and focusing money and development efforts on downtown is not criminal conduct akin to lying to a grand jury or manipulating intelligence and lying to send the country to war. We may not agree with it and if we think it's wrong, it's our duty to point it out. It's not our duty to call for someone to lose their job n anybody n just because we don't like them.

It's just not good manners.

Roger Leonard may quit writing for us, I don't know. I'm not sure I would blame him if he does. It's up to him. I hope he doesn't quit because I think he makes a major contribution to our product and to the discussion in the community. We're fortunate to have someone like Roger Leonard among us n someone who cares enough about the community in which he lives to study it in depth and who takes the time to make a contribution.

Be that as it may, decisions regarding the Suffolk News-Herald and the part it will play in this community are mine. And I stand by this one.

Since Wednesday , I've received several calls about what happened to Leonard's column n even one from one of the metro paper reporters. There are all sorts of rumors flying and I just wanted to set the record straight.

That's another thing that differentiates community newspapers like us from the large ones. We care what you think about us n we're one of you. As such, I feel at

times we owe you explanations for the decisions we make. This is one of those times. The intimacy we enjoy with our readers is one of the main things I love about small town newspapering, but it can be a bit dicey at times. There are times when I'd love to be in some high rise building with armed security at the front, able to call people stooges or anything else I like. This is one of those times.