No good deed …

When I asked readers to send me photos of veterans in their families — those who’ve passed on and those who are still with us — for a Sunday Page 1 feature over Memorial Day weekend, I struck a raw nerve in one Medford woman who accused me of “perpetuating misinformation” and printing “a slap in the face to every veteran who reads the Mail Tribune and all the family members who have lost someone.”
“Memorial Day is a somber reminder of those who paid the ultimate price to protect the freedom we have,” she wrote in an email.
Yes, I realize that is the purpose of Memorial Day, I emailed back to her, but the Mail Tribune wants to honor all veterans for this particular feature. I offered to try to break the photos up into categories, so that it would be clear which veterans had given their lives in service.
“Seems like you are just interested in exploiting veterans to make it seem like the Mail Tribune cares,” she fired back. A few hours later, she was still fuming, ending another email tirade with, “You’re truly sick in the head.”
I haven’t responded to her latest emails. I have a feeling it wouldn’t matter what I said, Memorial Day is truly special to her, and in her mind the Mail Tribune is somehow besmirching the holiday’s good name.
I ran this possibility by a couple of people at the Mail Tribune. They couldn’t see why honoring all veterans would be a bad thing. And by the response I’ve gotten so far, from families with veterans both passed on and still living, other people don’t seem to think it’s a bad thing, either.
I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Memorial Day or those veterans who died in service to their country. We will cover Memorial Day events as we do every year to commemorate those veterans.
I opened this feature up to all veterans in the spirit of inclusiveness.
In my mind, we can’t do enough to honor and thank our veterans, however they served and however they died.

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When a mannequin head makes a story

The news couldn’t have been weirder last week — at least I hope it can’t be much weirder — when we wrote separate stories on men accused of performing sexual acts using, well, let’s just say unusual props.
One was accused of using a chicken “for the purpose of arousing and gratifying the sexual desire of a person.” Our story says “little additional information was available,” which in this case is probably a good thing.
The other allegedly was caught on video surveillance in a Medford parking garage elevator performing some kind of sexual motions on a mannequin head, then setting fire to it with an accomplice.
This story prompted discussions in the newsroom regarding wording, accuracy and placement of details in the story.
The headline on our first post, written based on what we knew at the time, said, “Two arrested for arson after one allegedly had sex with a mannequin head.”
I asked the reporter a question I’m quite sure I’ve never had to ask before in my 30-year career as an editor: “Do we know for sure he had sex with the mannequin head?”
This led to a rather uncomfortable discussion over what “had sex with” means, the state of the man’s zipper and other delicate matters, and to the reporter’s credit, he answered questions with a straight face that was only slightly pink in color.
Medford police told us that in the video, you can see the man making thrusting motions with his hips up against the mannequin head, but not the state of the zipper or the other delicate matters.
The reporter and I decided to change our headline and our story to be as accurate as possible:
“Mannequin head used in apparent sex act, set ablaze in Medford elevator.”
Thrusting motions with one’s hips constituted an apparent sex act of some sort, we reasoned, though not necessarily actually having sex with the head.
The reporter initially had placed that information far down in the story, leading with the arson charge instead. An editor saw the mannequin detail and moved it to the lead and headline, which made the reporter slightly uncomfortable but I believe was the right call.
In this era of massive amounts of information constantly pummeling busy readers, part of our job is catching people’s attention with a compelling lead, then giving as much information as possible at the top so if readers can’t finish the story, they know the bones of it, at least. It’s called an inverted pyramid style of writing.
If you’d heard about this incident and brought it up at a dinner party, would you mention the arson first or what the guy was allegedly doing to the mannequin? I’m guessing you’d lead with the sex act.
Someone on Facebook wondered why we had to include the apparent sex act in our story in the first place — a fair question.
We do intentionally leave out salacious details in some stories, especially when they could be unnecessarily harmful to the victim, as in child sexual abuse stories.
But in this case, we believe it was an important part of the story. We first saw it referenced in passing in a Facebook post by the police and we thought, “Wait, what??” It screamed for explanation and context.
Mannequin head. Apparent sex act. Arson. In a Medford parking garage elevator. Who wouldn’t read that story?

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The Comics Disaster of 2017

You can imagine how our phones and email accounts exploded this morning when readers turned to a completely new comics page on B8 without a horoscope, without most of their favorite strips, and without any warning whatsoever.

Believe me, I was just as surprised as anyone (as evidenced by the spray of French roast over “Mother Goose & Grimm”).

Many of you probably don’t know that our pages are designed in Austin, Texas, at the Center for News and Design. The same page designers for the Mail Tribune also work on Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, New Hampshire, where today’s comics page belongs (which leaves me wondering whether Foster’s readers are howling over the loss of their “Mary Worth” and “Rex Morgan, M.D.” strips today).

Readers feared that our new owner, Rosebud Media, lay behind this malicious deed. If this was the new direction of the Mail Tribune, they said, then count them out.

Fans of “Pickles,” “Peanuts” and “Baby Blues” be rest assured: We would never, in a million years, think of changing the comics page without consulting you first. In 2008, we asked readers whether we should stop running “Peanuts” after creator Charles Schulz had been dead for eight years. Weren’t they tired of reruns?

No! They responded loudly. And a pox on the head of the editor who drops this beloved comic!

Needless to stay, “Peanuts” still leads our comics page. The right one, anyway.

Today’s comics page was a mistake, plain and simple. Things happen. And when they do, other things hit the fan. And we respond.

We’re running the correct comics page in full in tomorrow’s paper.

As one reader so eloquently wrote me today, “In today’s chaotic world, humor is one of our few outlets for venting.”

Let us all keep venting. Keep laughing. Keep reading. And keep in touch.

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Why we didn’t cover the Indivisible protest again

We’ve gotten a few emails from protesters upset we didn’t cover their march through downtown Medford Tuesday, the third they’ve held in what are weekly demonstrations against President Trump. The senders have accused us of failing to be the journalistic leader we’ve been in the past and failing to be a representative of the free press in this country.
I’m not saying my choice to not cover the protest, which organizers say drew 300, was the right one. It was important to those people. They want their voices heard. I understand that. But I would like to explain my reasoning behind that decision.
We covered last week’s protest with story and photo on the front page and a video added online. All the protests so far have demanded that our lawmakers in Washington, D.C., resist Trump’s policies and Cabinet picks. I was reluctant to repeat what essentially would be the same story this week. It was one of the many decisions I make daily on how to best use our small staff’s time and energy.
We are committed, however, to covering how our new president’s policies affect local citizens. This week we chose two different approaches: Sunday’s front page focused on how local Latinos fear deportation after Trump announced stricter immigration enforcement. We’re also pursuing a story on how Trump’s ban on travel into the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries is affecting the local Muslim community, which, it turns out, is also dealing with acts of racism by people who apparently feel emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. That story is currently scheduled for the front page on Friday.
One of our many responsibilities as journalists is to give underrepresented people a voice, but we must also provide context and balance. Covering a similar protest by the same group of people every week doesn’t feel like balance to me; would those same people want us to cover a weekly pro-Trump rally?
That’s not to say we won’t find other ways of covering the weekly protest, or at least check in — as we did yesterday. The reporter who’s working on the Muslim impact story attended the gathering and talked to a few folks for his upcoming story. He also took a video, which we posted online today.
We’re always looking for story ideas about ways our government impacts local citizens. Please share your ideas with me at cnoah@mailtribune.com.

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No, we don’t take down stories

We got a request this week to take off the internet two stories we’d written about a family involved in a fierce custody battle that straddled two countries a decade ago. The couple had reconciled (which we’d written about, too) and wanted to move on with their lives, but when someone Googles their names or their children’s names, our stories pop up on the first results page.
I can fully understand that the family wants to move beyond this painful episode. But that’s the thing about our past: It’s part of who we are. And it doesn’t go away. Especially in the age of the internet.
When newspapers were print only, personal crises that made the news pages would fade over time, resurrected only by memory or when someone dug out a clipping. But the internet has changed all that. Stories are recorded for all time. Even if someone takes a story down, websites such as the Wayback Machine, whose tentacles continually take snapshots of web pages, can dig it out again.
We are a newspaper of record. We don’t take stories down just because someone doesn’t like them. If we did, our readers could accuse us of being coerced by the rich or powerful or knuckling under to threats, eroding the very foundation of a democratic society: a press that’s free of influence and fear.
We do want to paint a complete picture of the past, however. We are happy to put an editor’s note on top of online crime stories saying a person has been exonerated if he or she provides us with proof, as we did for a man last month who was arrested on serious marijuana charges that were later expunged. And our “Emergency Services,” a daily list of felony arrests, expires off our website after six months in the interest of fairness — we don’t have the resources to follow up on every single arrest to know whether there’s been a conviction.
We strive to be fair about the past, but we will not pretend it didn’t exist.

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Why we identified a 12-year-old accused murderer

In today’s paper, we name Ezekiel “Zeke” Holmes, the 12-year-old boy accused of killing his mother and trying to kill his 16-year-old sister with a kitchen knife Tuesday morning at their Ashland home.
Stories like these are difficult on everyone. We in the newsroom feel the same horror and grief as the community, ask the same helpless questions. Why? How? What would lead someone so young to allegedly commit such a violent act?
Ashland police and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office declined to name the suspect. We generally don’t name juveniles in crime stories, either, to protect their identity. Kids make mistakes. They deserve the chance to learn from them, make amends and move on.
But serious, violent crimes are different. We believe the public has the right to know the identity of someone charged with a heinous crime such as murder.
The Mail Tribune’s policy is to identify juveniles when they are charged with Measure 11 crimes or, in the case of juvenile court, the equivalent. We were in the process of trying to confirm the suspect’s identity — rumors already had started — when Zeke’s father identified him in a public Facebook post, making any chance of anonymity a moot point. The community now knows.
Giving readers as much concrete information as possible helps avoid damaging rumors about innocent people. We already had heard a couple of different names circulating around before Jim Holmes put the rumors to rest.
He also named his daughter, Lydia, who by association was already identified by police as the suspect’s sister, and we included her name in a story, too. Naming the victims helps humanize them — they are not faceless victims. They are people the community cares about. That Zeke’s father was open about his family helped contribute to our decision, and the community has responded to the Holmeses in a big way. A gofundme.com account had raised $21,000 and counting for the family as of this morning.
Naming the family members in this tragic story was not a decision we made lightly. We don’t always make the right call, but we do try to weigh all factors. We want to give readers as much information as possible so they can respond to a community tragedy with knowledge, compassion and support.

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When a penis shows up in a photo

Trenton Berg, 6, makes a dust angel at the Roller Odyssey in Medford on Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

As readers pointed out with many laugh-crying emojis this morning, Jamie Lusch’s photo of a kid making dust angels on the floor of the old Roller Odyssey skating rink contained a not-so-anatomically-correct drawing of a penis in the dust nearby. At least people think it is a penis. Could be a car with only two wheels, I suppose.
That particular drawing did not show up in the print version, as the reproduction in newsprint washed out that part of the photo, thank goodness. Our newsprint readers might not find men’s anatomy all that funny over their breakfast cereal.
I looked at that photo of the boy making a dust angel last night after reading the story and thought it was adorable. It didn’t occur to me to scan the rest of the floor for phallic symbols. Note to self: Kids will draw the darndest things on any surface, be it paper, dirty car windows or dusty roller rink floors. Check for body parts.)
Not that the kids in the photo drew that particular image. Anyone could’ve done that. The rink’s been closed for two years, which is a lot of time for someone to think up ways to use dust to the best advantage.
For the record, Jamie didn’t see the penis on the floor, either. We could claim our minds just don’t go there, but that would be violating our journalistic oath to always tell the truth.
For now, I’m leaving the photo as is. Kids will be kids. But I could be persuaded to crop it, if enough people find it offensive.
What say you, readers?
Postscript, 12/21: No one on our Facebook page thought we should take the photo down. The entire photo doesn’t show up on the online version of the story itself — only on the Facebook post — because of the way the photo drops into a pre-set window on our website. Just a happy accident, I guess.

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Who wrote that @$%&! editorial??

The Mail Tribune Editorial Board has been accused of many things. Leaning too far left. Leaning too far right. Being in the pockets of _____________ (fill in the blank. Choices range from the Chamber of Commerce to Satan himself). Kowtowing to the paper’s various owners over the years. Being just too stupid to know when to crawl off and die.

Hot issues trigger hot collars, but editors at the Mail Tribune have been jumping into the fray since the paper was founded 111 years ago. While the Mail Tribune strives to be as balanced as possible on our news pages, exploring multiple sides of each issue, we aim to make bold, pointed pronouncements on our editorial pages, backed up by our reporting and research.

As you can imagine, this does not often make many friends.

We’ve been asked many times how we form these opinions. Who writes the editorials? Why aren’t they signed? Do our corporate owners dictate what we say or what issues we weigh in on? And we’re happy to answer these questions.

The members of the board are Publisher Grady Singletary, Associate Editor Bob Hunter, Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson, Daily Tidings Editor Bert Etling and myself. (The Editorial Boards of both the Mail Tribune and Daily Tidings are the same.)

We are all unaffiliated registered voters. We all have our own opinions. We don’t always agree. After hashing out the pros and cons, we vote and come to a consensus we all can live with. Even Grady, who has veto power as the publisher, accepts the will of the majority. This is why editorials aren’t signed, because they represent the view of the board, not one single member.

Nearly all are written by Gary, using key points raised by the Editorial Board. Nelson has won numerous awards from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association and Society of Professional Journalists and, unbeknownst to many, plays a pretty mean trombone when he’s not ticking people off making pronouncements on the board’s behalf.

For as many races as possible, Nelson and at least one other board member interview all the candidates for a particular position together in one room before the board decides whom to endorse. After attending most of these interviews over the last few weeks, I found them to be quite illuminating. The candidates who were best informed, had good ideas and were able to listen to others’ opinions surfaced quickly. Sometimes it was tough to make a choice (so tough for the assessor’s race, in fact, we ran a rare editorial advising voters either would do well).

The presidential race was a different nut altogether (pun intended). As it’s impossible to talk to either of the major party candidates, let alone get them both in the Mail Tribune conference room, the board had decided in 2012 it wasn’t going to do presidential endorsements any longer. What could we possibly say that hasn’t been said ad nauseam by the national media, including our own syndicated columnists?

Then along came Trump (see Gary’s Tuesday editorial).

In our entire history, through many changes of ownership (including a brief stint with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), we never once have been told what to write or whom to endorse. There is no corporate policy on editorials. Just five journalists in a room, every Tuesday at 2 p.m., hammering out the paper’s positions for the week ahead.

We believe the Editorial Page is a crucial part of a newspaper’s job in a democracy such as ours to keep voters informed so they, in turn, make informed decisions.

If you agree with us, great. If you wish we’d just crawl off and die, that’s OK, too. Either way, let us know, will you? Letters to the editor may be sent by email to letters@mailtribune.com.

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The quiet fight for the public’s right to know

As we cover the discovery of lead pipes in Medford’s water system, we’re also fighting behind the scenes for an important public record that could shed more light on this critical public safety issue: the Medford Water Commission’s performance evaluation of embattled Manager Larry Rains.

The commission ordered the review after questions arose over whether Rains responded appropriately to the possibility of lead pigtails in the water system. (See Damian Mann’s special report here.) Rains denied the presence of lead pipes on the very day one was found in west Medford — and, as it turns out, that pipe wasn’t the first.

We believe the evaluation, which took into account not only board members’ views of Rains’ performance but the views of his employees and outside agencies, could tell us how the manager of Medford’s water system responded to quality and safety concerns over the years. Did he encourage employees to report and act on residents’ complaints of water quality issues? Did he foster an environment in which safety came first?

The Water Commission claims the evaluation process is not yet complete and therefore the record is not yet public. Larry Rains was placed on administrative leave Wednesday and announced he would resign Oct. 31. How much more complete must the process be?

The commission denied our Aug. 31 public records request initially on the grounds it fell under the exemption of “internal advisory communications.”

We appealed to Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, who rejected the commission’s claim, pointing out that in Oregon, the public’s interest in the evaluation of a top-level employee outweighs the government’s interest in keeping it confidential.

Heckert also said, however, that the evaluation “must be complete before the record should be disclosed” and denied our request.

“The public interest in knowing how top level public employees are functioning is important but should not impede the process by being disclosed prior to the conclusion of the process,” she wrote in her Sept. 21 order.

Heckert gave the commission no clear direction on what constituted a completed process, but added, “I would strongly encourage the City of Medford to release (the evaluation) … as soon as possible once the Board has completed the evaluation process.”

We say the process is complete. What say you, readers?

 

Note: This blog has been corrected to reflect that the Medford Water Commission, not the city of Medford, is holder of the public record we seek. Though the commission is an agency of the city and the mayor appoints its members, it acts autonomously. The city and the commission share the same attorney, Lori Cooper.

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    Cathy Noah

    Believe it or not, journalists are real people, too. Editor Cathy Noah explores the inner workings of the newsroom, explaining why the Mail Tribune did — or didn't — do something that made readers angry / sad / happy / incredulous / stupefied. ... Full Profile
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