Behind The Scenes

Racist coverage? (letter to the editor)

We recently covered an incident in downtown Brattleboro where two women were forced into a car at gunpoint (the charges ended up being kidnapping) and ended with a standoff with police. Given the nature of the crime, we ran the story as lead news (top of Page 1) with a photo of the four suspects.

In this case, the suspects happened to be all black -- three men and one woman. While their race didn't necessarily trip any "bells" with us in the newsroom (after all, we've run pictures of other suspects of different races on the front page in the past), it did catch the eye of a few letter writers, including this person:


Power of the Press [AT&T edition]

Late last week, the newsroom was tipped off, by several angry residents in Putney, that their cell service (provided by AT&T) had been reduced. That is to say that in areas where they were used to having full bars, they now had none; and where they were once on AT&T's network they were now roaming.

And, as it turns out, AT&T were unwilling to help these folks and unwilling to speak to us for a story on the topic.

Once the story ran, in last weekend's Reformer, Gov. Shumlin took notice and, less than a week later, full service was restored to those affected.

Here's a letter we received on the matter:

"Thanks in large measure to Howard Weiss-Tisman’s coverage of the
issue, AT&T cell service has returned to a large swath of Putney.
Howard’s thorough research took him from those affected to the Public
Service Commission and eventually to Governor Peter Shumlin’s office.
Three cheers for our state government, the folks at the AT&T Store in
Keene, N.H., who tried to get the message up through the corporate
hierarchy and Putney citizens Beckie Coffey and Libby McCawley who
united the dozens of affected Putney residents.

"We’re grateful that the forces marshaled by Howard’s article
convinced the corporation to fulfill its responsibility to its

"It’s good to know that local newspapers still have the power to right

This just goes to show how important your local daily newspaper can still be ....


One-sided crime reporting?

Consider a portion of this letter to the editor we recently received regarding a crime story written about an assault at The Putney Inn:

"I am writing regarding the article titled 'New Hire at Putney Inn charged with assault,' written by Mike Faher on March 26. I do not understand why this was written up as an article — it belongs in the police report section only. The arrest was made on charges that may or may not be true. Why write about something so inconclusive?

"The article also painted a sensationalized criminal picture of Shannon Ridgeway who has no past criminal activity or record. It was based only on what the police and employees at the Putney Inn said, and was basically a character assassination of Shan­non. Why didn’t the Reformer contact Shan­non for his story if they felt such a pressing need to write about it?

"I have a very different picture of Shannon than was portrayed. He was the caregiver for my 97-year-old mother who had demen­tia. ...

It went on to detail his relationship with the suspect and ended with the following statement:

"I think the Reformer should have been much more careful before writing such an article. It portrayed a limited view of this incident."

It has been my experience that in almost of these types of cases, lawyers will encourage their clients to not speak to the press so as to not negatively impact their case. That is why we typically write these stories from court documents.

Recently, I had a man stop by the offices and, after speaking with him briefly, realized he was the suspect in a recent crime story we printed. While at first apprehensive (he was an intimidating looking fellow) I soon realized his sole purpose coming to speak with me was to convey his sincere apology to the individuals he harmed, the community in general, as well as his family. He left with me a long letter saying as much. However -- and mind you I'm no lawyer -- but as I mentioned above, I do know that such displays, however well-meaning, often make lawyers cringe when they're in the midst of a trial. I took his letter, talked to the reporter covering his case later in the day, and we decided to call his lawyer to make him aware of the "gesture." I encouraged the suspect to call me back after he and his lawyer spoke, but never heard from him again.

We are very happy to continue following these cases as they make their way through the legal system, so that if, for example, charges are dropped it can be reported in the newspaper.


Nice to be appreciated

I wanted to share the following letter to the editor from earlier this week, for two reasons. First, it shows the effect our coverage can have on the community and our readership (which spreads far beyond south eastern Vermont, these days). Second, it shows the effect social media can have on crowd sourcing and news reporting.

Santa decoration (circa 1960s)

Thank you for your recent article regarding the 50th Birthday of Santa and for recognizing the “I grew up in Brattleboro” Facebook page. I am the person that started the page and I am glad to know that it is meaningful to so many and that you are watching. Social media at it’s best! Thank you again.

(P.S. The letter from is from Maryland.)

The article in question was about a two-story Santa decoration, created by a local family 50 years ago. We received an e-mail from a member of the family earlier this month, with an old photo of the Santa -- which has since been donated to an area school and prominently displayed (it can be seen from the Interstate) -- a clip from an old Reformer and a brief history on the piece.

At the same time, a member of the newsroom came across a post on the decoration on a Facebook page. And so, we were able to merge new photos from our staff photographer, comments from Facebook and the history of the piece, and craft a nice little piece for publication.


Use of term 'homeless' in headline questioned

I received an interesting letter to the editor regarding a headline in the Dec. 15 Reformer: "Homeless man charged in Brattleboro robbery."

The recent headline “Homeless man charged in Brattleboro robbery” printed in the Dec. 15 issue of the Brattleboro Reformer, reinforces a negative stereotype around “the homeless” and perpetuates an outdated identity for homeless individuals in general. By drawing a connection between homelessness and criminal behavior, the headline was insensitive to members of our community with unstable housing. It is unlikely that the Reformer would have printed a headline that read, “Man on public assistance charged in robbery” or “Unemployed man charged in robbery.”

The reality of homelessness today includes families and children, who have been living on the brink, paycheck to paycheck, to the extent that an unexpected car repair or illness may have tipped the balance and caused the loss of their apartment or the foreclosure on their home.

If homelessness were going to be a theme in the story, it would be helpful to provide more context of what we, as a community and/or country, are facing in regards to our capacity to alleviate it. Systemically, greater Brattleboro is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, where the demand far exceeds the means to ensure safe, secure, and reasonably priced homes for all. As a community, we rely on a system that is overburdened and being pushed beyond
capacity to meet the needs of all of the many facets that can lead to homelessness.

If we are going to solve the issue of homelessness, we need to move beyond stereotypes and broaden the conversation.

I find this letter interesting for a couple of reasons. First, this is not the first time I received a letter like this -- usually every time this type of headline appears in the newspaper. And second: It never crosses out mind in the newsroom that this is the way someone could interpret this type of headline.

In this case, as with any other, we use the term homeless in the headline to delineate a point of origin for the person being written about, just as we would by saying “a Brattleboro man” or "a Putney woman" (a common practice
in the newspaper). Using a term like "local person" (which also is sometimes done) doesn't seem to make sense, since the people in question aren't technically "local."

For now we will try to be sensitive to the points mentioned in the above letter; this seems to be a topic which will continue to be discussed.


Letters to the editor (it's a cross-generational thing)

I got a great letter to the editor earlier this month from (I assume) a younger reader of the newspaper. It seems our recent coverage of a regional cartoonist (Hilary Price) speaking at a Bellows Falls event got folks interested in adding her Rhymes With Orange strip added to the Reformer comics page.

While my preferred method of receiving letters these days is via e-mail, sometimes you just can't beat a good ol' fashioned, hand-written letter:

As an aside: It should be noted that the last time any changes were made to the comics page, I set up a special phone line to the Reformer, so that folks could call in to vote for their preferred changes. It is, by and far, the most response I've ever received for a project during my career. The problem with Rhymes with Orange is that it's unique size means it must replace one of two regular features: The Family Circus (which was still surprisingly popular during the aforementioned vote) and the daily Jumble puzzle.

This letter ran with an editor's note, requesting other readers sign on with support for Rhymes With Orange .... We shall see if it must come to another vote in the coming weeks.

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Discussing headlines

Consider this letter to the editor received and run in the newspaper last week:

I was recently told by an editor at the Reformer that sometimes sensational headlines are chosen in order to catch the readers’ eye.

Last week there was an article about Bellows Falls that had the dramatic heading "BFPD seeing ‘fair share’ of sex crimes" (Sept. 13). Yet when one reads the article, the words "sex crimes" were mentioned only briefly, while other equally important issues and hopeful news was offered in much more greater detail. The Reformer may grab ones attention with a headline like this, but in the end, it continues to sensationalize legitimate issues the community is facing and perpetuates negative, unnecessary stereotypes.

Folks in the Bellows Falls area are working hard to make it a more thriving community. Instead of continuing to spread negative stereotypes to try and grab attention of your readers, the Reformer might want to consider the influence it has in promoting more positive news. Bad news needs to be reported, yes, but why do you have to continue the "sex sells" mentality if it’s harmful to folks in the long run? Words have power, so please consider that the next time you want to sensationalize a story about the people being written about.

Not to go off on a tangent, but around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks this year, I watched an interesting documentary on the events of that day, as they unfolded, from the perspective of those working in the air traffic control locations. One of the biggest challenges, once it was clear this was a serious situation that needed military involvement, what the fact that the different groups working on the situation had different ways of communicating or discussing the events that were happening.

Perhaps it would have been simpler to just state: Different things mean different things to different people.

This letter prompted an editor's note, which ran as such:

Editor's note: No editor recalls making such a statement ... In fact, it is the belief of the editorial board that while some papers choose such tactics to sell papers, we try very hard not to sensationalize local news coverage.

As it turns out, the letter-writer had talked about the headline with the night editor, who rarely gets "policy" calls at night and was out of the office with several members of the staff met to discuss the letter. That was my mistake, and we apologized with a second editor's note addressed to the letter writer.

Secondly, after learning of that discussion, I think there was confusion between the terms "sensationalize" and what it means to grab attention. Choosing the most sensational or interesting aspect of a story to "advertize" the story's content to readers doesn't exactly translate to sensationalism (at least not in my mind). Using this specific instance as an example, a member of the police force told the board there was a rise in several types of crime, including sex crimes. We used the sex crime aspect for the headline, though there was not a lot of further mention.

As an example of sensationalizing: Imagine at a town meeting that mention was made that, over the past several months, a notable number of convicted sex offenders had moved to the area, and for the story we declared (via headline): "Town kids unsafe, board says."

I'm sure you see the difference.

(*Please note: In any case like this, I do use the concern to engage the newsroom -- editors and reporters -- in discussing these issues to self-check ourselves and make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the message and method we want to convey to the community.)

But this also offers me a chance to once again go over my headline policy:

1) In the past year or so, the editor's have begun requesting that reporters suggest/provide their own headlines to stories. This is important for several reasons. As a writer, if you are unable to sum up the most important elements of your story in four to ten words, then you probably don't have a good grasp on how to present the news in your story. (This, by the way, is an excellent learning tool for writers.)

2) Suggested heads give editors at night something to work off of. Right on deadline, after seven or eight hours of editing, it sometimes becomes difficult to come up with snappy headlines.

3) As a policy, I don't want sensationalism in your newspaper. Once you've been labeled as such, people begin to question any and all news coverage. Furthermore, I think the local news we are covering is important and interesting enough to stand on its own merit, without the staff working to make it more "sexy."

4) Looking forward: We will probably begin modifying the way we handle headlines shortly yet again, to ensure more descriptive headlines go online, as opposed to the more creative yet ultimately not-web-friendly which work great in print because of the medium. ("He was loved" works great on a front page, with a visible subhead about the local notable who recently passed away and a nice pull-quote next to his picture. Online, your Google search only shows you "He was loved." Yes ... and ....???)

Point is, this is a constant learning experience so thanks to the letter writer once again. This conversation is sure to continue.


Letter writer discusses Reformer as a local paper (with praise!)

Got an interesting letter to the editor today from a reader in Saxtons River, complimenting our work but also

Here it is, in part, followed by some comments and reaction from me:

Editor of the Reformer:

... I have followed with interest the on-going discussion about what kind
of paper the Reformer is (or should be), in particular related to the
Friday edition. Now that thus conversation seems to have died down,
and after having read the paper on a regular basis for almost a year,
I have a few comments to make.

I think the Reformer is an excellent local newspaper, with just
barely enough national and international news to remind the reader
what else is going on in the world. For in-depth information about
events in the world-at-large, one simply has to turn to other
sources. For people used to more depth and perspective from the
Reformer in earlier years, I can understand that this must be a very
disappointing trend ....

I also think it is kind of silly to pretend that the Friday Reformer
is very different from the other days, i.e. with more local news, as
since it was launched, virtually every day, the front page has some
pleasant or heart-warming story about local Vermonters and their good
works. It seems to me that during the entire week the paper is
stuffed with local news and feel-good articles. It is certainly not
limited to Fridays. ...

I wonder if, recognizing the growing competition from a local paper
with high-quality, in-depth, and informative articles — I am
referring to The Commons — the Reformer decided it had better
scramble to put out news that would satisfy the local community and
keep readers from jumping ship. And my husband pointed out that
finances may well be a factor, as the paper very likely has to pay
more for articles from other sources, like the Associated Press.

So these are my observations to add to the discussion, perhaps a bit
belatedly, but I had to wait until I felt reasonably qualified to
share them.

First off ... thanks so much to the writer for taking the time to write this letter.

I think the the writer hit the nail right on the head: People are reading the Reformer, first and foremost, to get the local news of the day -- news; meeting coverage; local crime; calendar of local events; local meeting rundowns; area obituaries; etc. We could fill an entire paper with just this type of content, but some readers still want a balance of local news along with regional, national and international news. Over the years, the perfect balance has shifted to put an emphasis on local news.

Why? Surely not for monetary reasons. We pay a flat fee for Associated Press content. "Money" does however control the size of the newspaper; and so while there may be plenty of news to fill the paper on a day-to-day basis, there's only so much room to print it. (One of the huge benefits of the Internet is that space is, in many ways -- at least compared to print -- limitless.)

I like to think that the Friday Reformer, mentioned many times on this blog, does have a different feel to the other days of the week. The Associated Press content is toned down more to make room for community news: the Windham County notebook (usually a page of listings); the local Health and Food pages; the community Page 1 feature; the recently suspended On the Street question of the week -- plus other features we're hoping to launch or incorporate down the road.

None of this was done due to perceived long competition. The Commons is a nice weekly paper. I've often said during my weekly appearance on WKVT's (1490AM) Live and Local with Steve West, that they do their thing (and do it well), but it's much different than what the Reformer offers. At least, that's what it should be (given that The Commons is a weekly and we are a daily).

It's good to see that readers are noticing a change in what the daily paper is offering, and for the most part understands (or is understanding) of why those changes are happening.


Power of the press (goat edition)

A few years ago, I got a letter to the editor comparing the newspaper's classified to Craigslist, and discussing how at least (most of) of ads were vetted and paid, whereas online people could often find themselves scammed.

(I very much want to try and dig that letter out of my personal archives and post it here, if for nothing more than the message it offers.)

In the meantime, here's a similar letter I got earlier this month. In this case, the writer is lauding the free tools we offer the community to get information out to the masses.

Over the weekend, a pet goat wandered into our yard. We spent all weekend trying to find his home to no avail. On Monday, I called the Reformer to put a "Found" ad in the paper. It was so easy to do and much to my surprise, it was FREE! Today, "Billy's" owner called us, thrilled that he could reunite him with his kids. Thank you so much for this public service you do. It made several people's day!

Always nice to get a positive letter from a reader ....


Providing a (community) service

Often overlooked is the many positive ways a small-town, community newspaper can be of assistance to the community without even trying, simply by doing our jobs. I wanted to take a moment and share an e-mail received last night:

"Over the weekend, a pet goat wandered into our yard. We spent all weekend trying to find his home to no avail. On Monday, I called the Reformer to put a 'Found' ad in the paper. It was so easy to do and much to my surprise, it was FREE! Today, "Billy's" owner called us, thrilled that he could reunite him with his kids. Thank you so much for this public service you do. It made several people's day!"

And, right now, a family shared a "missing" photo of their two dogs on the Reformer's Facebook page (which we promptly turned around and shared with our "fans" -- see the post, here). Let's hope, by getting the information out to as many people in the community as possible, they too will find their missing loved ones.

(... Another testament to the value of a daily newspaper.)

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