Stan Tiner on Calling for Help in a Headline, Editing the Daily Disappointment, and Forming a “Newsroom Trust”

Stan Tiner

Stan Tiner has been the executive editor and vice president of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi since May 2000. Although Biloxi was battered by Hurricane Katrina, the paper did not break its record of 121 years of daily delivery and continued to serve its community through the crisis. Tiner has written numerous columns about the hurricane’s aftermath, sometimes waxing poignant, other times employing potty humor. Tiner served as Executive Editor of the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for nearly a year, spent almost seven years editing the Mobile (Alabama) Register, and is a former U.S. Marine and a Vietnam veteran.

Liz Cox Barrett: We interviewed a rookie Sun Herald reporter — Mike Keller — a week or so after Katrina passed through Biloxi, and asked him how he thought the national media had been handling the story. He lamented that the media wasn’t able to focus “on the absolute width of this destruction.” He said, “It’s a little sad because [Biloxi] is not getting any coverage, and here is bad, too.” With three months more hindsight, what do you think the national media has done or is doing right in their Katrina coverage? And what have they missed or are they missing?

Stan Tiner: Mike was certainly right in saying that the scope of the destruction makes it difficult to comprehensively report the story. There are literally thousands of stories, embedded within this large event. Mike’s concern that Biloxi or the Mississippi Coast is not getting coverage is a thought that people of our region often state.

The perception continues that there is a disproportionate share of coverage devoted to the New Orleans part of the story. Each of these disasters is on a scale unknown in American history. New Orleans by itself would be the single largest disaster in our nation’s history, and the Mississippi destruction taken by itself would be the single greatest natural disaster. So each is a very large story, and rather than dwelling on the national media’s role in this, we have simply tried to do the best job that we can in telling the story of our region to our readers and beyond.

I do think the matter of proportion in the coverage is an interesting question that should be analyzed by someone, perhaps a journalism review such as yours. Take all of the coverage and analyze the allocation of journalistic resources. Certainly, we have had good coverage here and are appreciative of all that we get because we think the focus on the plight of our people is of great importance and the role of the media in making the story known to the American people has implications that will affect the success of our recovery.

LCB: Let’s make that same question specific to your paper. What are you most proud of about the Sun Herald’s Katrina-related coverage? And what is something the Sun Herald missed or something you wish you’d done differently?

ST: Being the local paper for South Mississippi provided us an incredible opportunity to serve our readers on a scale beyond anything that we had ever imagined. It reminded all of us of the importance of a newspaper in providing important information to the communities that we serve.

In the first few weeks, there was very little other media coverage going into our region and so the papers we delivered everyday, often by the journalists themselves as they made their rounds covering the stories, provided the primary source of information for people across the coastal counties. It was important for hurricane victims to know what was going on and to see the images and to hear what was happening to their neighbors and to find out what had happened, in many cases, in their own communities. People were extremely isolated in those days. We emphasized usefulness in our coverage just in terms of reporting where they could go for goods and services, the location of things, and how to do things that were necessary to the furtherance of their existence. Of course, we were also telling of their plight to the larger world which we think was important. On the third day when our headline said, “Help us now,” we felt we were an advocate for our region in a loud voice that could even be heard in Washington. We helped get the attention of those who were in a position to respond to our region’s needs.

In terms of missing something or wishing we had done something differently, it is just the overwhelming scale of the disaster and the knowledge that if we had a thousand reporters and photographers that there would still be big stories that would remain untold, and learning how to pace ourselves to tell the story over the long haul.

LCB: You were hired as executive editor of the Daily Oklahoman a few months after CJR dubbed it it “The Worst Newspaper in America,” and “a fat, incurious monopoly” that was “locally known as the Daily Disappointment.” Why did you want that job? And, although you were there for less than a year, plenty of people — including CJR — were enthusiastic about the changes you made there. What did you take away from that experience?

ST: I was offered the job, and after reflection I accepted. Accepting the challenge was consistent with my career and to some extent the general pursuit of the American dream. The paper was about twice the size of the Mobile Register, and I saw a great opportunity to provide journalistic service to an entire state. I think the newspaper succeeded in that regard during my stewardship. I left Oklahoma a better editor and with good memories of the many who received us warmly during my sojourn there.

LCB: We were put in touch by a PR firm that contacted us to say you would be in New York this week and available to talk about the Sun Herald’s Katrina coverage. Why now? Seems like part of a Knight Ridder good will/PR push. Is this the good news story Knight Ridder has to tell these days?

ST: It had long been planned for me to be in New York to address students at Columbia University on the Sun Herald Katrina coverage (even though I ultimately had to cancel because of pressing duties in Mississippi). I believe the firm’s intention was to simply make me available to you for an interview and the decision was yours as to whether you believed that would be newsworthy. As this question suggests, you are perfectly free to ask whatever you like. I truly don’t believe it is part of any “PR push,” but you would have to ask someone else that question.

LCB: Five years ago, you were quoted in a CJR article fantasizing about something you dubbed “The Newsroom Trust,” whereby a certain percentage of a newspaper’s profits would be set aside for “the operation of a superior newsroom,” “above and beyond the regular newsroom budget … [to] allow for excellence that many editors no longer see possible.” Where does this fantasy stand today, in light of all the cuts your parent company and its peers are making?

ST: I think the “Newsroom Trust” idea is one that still has value, perhaps more than ever. I don’t think of it so much as a fantasy — instead, I think it is a serious idea that deserves a broader discussion.

I imagine, however, that very few of your readers will have any knowledge of the general idea, so let me quickly try to outline how the Newsroom Trust would work.

It begins with the premise that while a newspaper is a business, it is not just a business. The news and information a newspaper provides has a civic value that is separate and apart from any business or financial plan.

In the modern era, where most newspapers exist in a publicly-held arena and are subject to market pressures that impact journalistic quality, it would be important to create a mechanism that protects the journalistic enterprise from those pressures.

The Newsroom Trust would be that mechanism, providing for a universally agreed upon minimum funding base which would be regarded as sacrosanct and untouchable.

The Trust would be based on a principle such as percentage of the local paper’s profit margin, or share of the overall paper’s annual budget.

If all newspapers were subject to this requirement there would be no advantage gained from cutbacks in news-gathering activities. Those companies who wanted to spend more obviously could, but all would be expected to spend the minimal or foundational base amount to produce the news and information necessary to meet the civic needs of the communities served.

There is a lot more to the idea, and I would welcome a discussion that might add other layers of thinking to how the trust might serve to protect the valuable journalistic franchise which I believe actually has a core financial worth in addition to its civic value.

LCB: And finally: A new hire at the (New Hampshire) Union Leader was reportedly terminated this week for having a “New York attitude” that an editor felt didn’t fit in at a community newspaper. Have any “New York attitudes” at the Sun Herald? Can city slickers succeed at community newspapers?

ST: I guess I would have to know more about the New York attitudes that you cite. Diversity really does work in terms of bringing new viewpoints and insights to the newspaper. I don’t think any of us wants a paper that is written by people with one frame of reference or one point of view or even one attitude. I think the richness that comes from diversity certainly can and should embrace those from many places. While we certainly think there is a lot to be said for local inside knowledge of history and so on, we are pleased to hire a number of young people from around the country whose contributions have made the Sun Herald a better place, including the two most recent newsroom hires, who are both Columbia Journalism School graduates.

I guess I would be less interested in “attitude” and more interested in solid journalism from reporters, wherever their place of origin.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.