Musings on newspapers, news, and neighbors

From the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 12 June 1860

One of the things that I love about doing research is that old newspapers offer not only unique stories and old advertisements, but a look into how publications viewed their job as purveyors of the news.

This clipping, from the Rochester Union and Advertiser, 12 June 1860, caught my eye. I’d posted it on my Facebook page last year, but came across it again today and have been musing on it all morning.

It appears that a rival newspaper had printed a story about two young people planning to elope, who in the end gave up their plan and returned home without incident. The Rochester Union and Advertiser noted that while they had the story several days earlier (before the Democrat *), the Rochester Union and Advertiser chose not to run it, in order to avoid embarrassment to the parties involved – who appear to be young. Their reason?

“When anything is published that wounds the feelings of the innocent connected with the guilty, the papers are censured,” says the editor – or, in other words, they feel the backlash from readers who believe they’ve capitalized on sensational stories.

“If those who censure so freely could know how often publication [of sensational stories] is withheld, and how much care is taken to save the innocent, by those who prepare local matters, they would blame the writers less.”

I was taken by this stance, that the editors might have weighed the consequences of the innocent when decided to run a story – specifically, a local story. The national news may have been a different thing, but when it comes to reporting on their neighbors, it seems that the Rochester Union and Advertiser, at least, took into account the fallout on the innocent.

Gossip vs news. What a concept.

The difference between that notion and today’s “news” cycle is striking to me. I remember when I was blogging for dollars some years ago, when pay was based on the number of page views the blog drew every month and training included ways to find stories that would increase traffic. This was back in the earlier days of blogging for pay, but it was still no secret: salacious stories drew far more readers than nice, feel good stories. Not that people didn’t want positive, upbeat stories; it’s just that when it comes to the internet, people are looking for controversy. And people like to argue online, so if you can get them arguing in your comments…ka-ching.

That’s one of the reasons I stopped blogging. I hated the negativity. I tried doing nice, upbeat positive stories for other websites, but in the end the amount of time spent researching and writing wasn’t justified by the pennies per hour the posts earned in pay. (And I do mean pennies.)

Look at magazine covers, news headline, popular blog posts as go about your day today. How much of our news is actually news, versus gossip? In fact, how do we even define news anymore? So many things to muse on.

But back to the clipping. One of my favorite things is to read in old papers are the slightly veiled insults editors of rival papers direct to each other, and this piece is really one of those. The Rochester Union and Advertiser may have their hands clean in this case, but they’ve done their share of “gossip as news” reporting.

But they thought about the consequences, far more than we do today.

Because the local people they were reporting on were neighbors, people they went to church with, broke bread with, saw on the streets every day as they went about their daily business. Making editorial decisions is very different when you have to sit next to a story subject in the pew on Sunday.

Life today is a lot more anonymous. And it’s easier to sling mud – or have an opinion that we feel needs to be shared, regardless of who it hurts – when we’re a faceless mass online. How would our behavior online be different if we made a conscious decision to view everyone we encountered – in person and online – as neighbors? As friends, as people with feelings and families and reputations that can be ruined with a single Facebook post? What if we were accountable for the harsh words we sling on social media and online? I’m not innocent, but hopefully I’m growing and evolving over the years.

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind this morning, where we’ve come and we’re we’re going; where I’ve come and where I’m going. Just something to ponder as I wander through my day.

* Just so you know, I did look online for the corresponding story in the Democrat, but wasn’t able to find it quickly. I can go down to the library and look at the microfiche – and I may do that at some point. But I always get lost in research, and spend hours rabbit trailing, and today isn’t the day for that. Another day…

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