Jennifer L. Grubbs: A decision to let writers express ideas
September 9, 2008
Two weeks ago, I made a decision that I make twice every week. I chose to run a column written by my sports reporter, John Vandelinder.
It was not a decision I took lightly. I knew it would cause a great deal of controversy. I knew it would stir up discussion. I knew our forum would light up with comments. I knew I would get phone calls about it. I knew my boss was going to hear about it the next day, and the day after that and probably for several more days after that.
But none of those are the reasons I ran it. And they would not have been the reasons I would not have run it.
When John first approached me about writing a column about Rick Penner and how and why the local school board came to declare that Penner had quit, my first thought was, “Um, no.”
My second thought was, “OK, let’s see what comes of this.”
The column that John turned in was not tactful and pretty; it was not gentle; it was not his greatest writing; it was not something that will win awards.
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However, it was John’s voice and his take on something that had affected him over the last few weeks.
I watched John get excited about Penner’s appointment as athletic director, about that new director’s plans for the athletic program at Moffat County High School and about his focus on the students. Then, during Penner’s AWOL period, I watched John get frustrated day after day as he tried to contact the A.D. for comment and information for stories. I also watched how much of a letdown it was for him when things crashed around Penner; how big of deal it was for John when the principal filed a missing person’s report; John’s worry that the “missing” man might be out in the woods alone and hurt or worse, which would explain why he hadn’t called; his sense of betrayal when we found out Penner was OK but just hadn’t contacted anyone; and how relieved he seemed when the school board made the decision to call it quitting by job abandonment and replace Penner.
And I knew that if John was that much affected by the situation, then the coaches, athletes and parents had to have been affected even more.
I decided this column needed to run – partly as a form of closure for John but also for this community. The school board had replaced Penner. The Daily Press was finished reporting on him. All that was left were the hurt feelings and sense of betrayal. This was a form of closure on the issue.
(I would still welcome Penner to tell his side of the story, whether through a question-and-answer interview or a letter to the editor or a column of his own.)
John’s column was an opinion piece, labeled as “commentary.” We did not try to disguise it as a news story. It was one man’s opinion.
We offer letters to the editor, our online forum for anyone who wants to refute this or any other commentary piece in the Daily Press or Saturday Morning Press, and sometimes we’ll offer guest column space for someone with something to say, like John.
I’ve read, heard and been told about plenty of talk from the community about how juvenile the column was, about how wrong I was to print it (yes, it was my decision, not Bryce’s, although he since has supported me), and how the Daily Press is just plain irresponsible for printing it.
What I have not heard anyone say is that John was wrong in his feelings. What I have not heard anyone tell me was that they did not feel the same way. What I have not received are signed letters to the editor that I could print, stating that the column was wrong.
If asked now, would I make the same decision on this column again? Yes.
Will I always allow my reporters to spout off about any issue they want? No.
That is a decision that has to be made on a case-by-case basis. The biggest factor: It has to serve a purpose for the readers. I decided this one did: catharsis.
As editor, I make decisions every day about what will appear in the Daily Press and what will not. This was my decision, and I made it, for better or worse.