My column from this week’s issue of Ottawa Delivered:

Now that Labor Day has passed, the election season is kicking into high gear.

There’s no better time to be a political reporter – especially when there is a tight race to be covered, such as the 11th Congressional District battle between U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Crete) and challenger Adam Kinzinger (R-Manteno). And when it comes to pleasing readers, there is no worse time to be a political reporter.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

The goal of any political reporter, including this one, is to give fair and balanced coverage to the candidates and the issues. Unfortunately, there are people I like to call Pavlov’s Politicos: They love any media story about their preferred candidate, and they call anything other than that biased reporting.

Case in point: Last week I covered a Halvorson campaign stop in Ottawa. As we do with all our articles, I posted a link to the story on Facebook. That’s where a Marseilles man suggested – tongue-in-cheek, I hope – I must be receiving monetary contributions from the congresswoman because I write “fluff” stories about her. I checked out his Facebook “likes,” which include Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, FOX News, the National Tea Party and nothing that appears to be remotely associated with Democrats.

So it follows suit that the commenter doesn’t like Halvorson. And apparently, because I covered a Halvorson event in the course of doing my job, he doesn’t like me, either. Or perhaps he just doesn’t like my writing. Doesn’t matter, really. I just wonder if, when he reads my coverage of a Kinzinger event, he feels the same way about my article.

I’m not mentioning the man’s political leanings to insinuate anything about Republicans. I mention them because a few days later, I received an e-mail message from somebody I know regularly attends meetings of the Bureau-La Salle Tea Party complimenting last week’s issue of Ottawa Delivered. Noting the spread of political stories in the issue, which included my Focus story about local political campaign volunteers and an in-depth interview with Halvorson, the e-mailer said the “good objective articles” were providing “a fine public service” to readers.

Apparently he wasn’t offended by the Halvorson article in the newspaper. Which brings me to my greater point: We don’t pander to any politicians here at Ottawa Delivered, and while I don’t expect to please everyone, I hope that readers will respect our attempt at providing them with views from all sides of the political arena: Democrat, Republican, tea party, independent, etc.

When our newspaper received compliments about its political coverage from a tea party member, a staunch Republican and a couple of union members all within a week’s time, I knew we must be doing it right. And I hope you agree. Because even if you don’t agree with the views expressed by the people being covered in a particular article, I hope you’ll at least respect the way we reported them.


I like to think the heated arguments over health-care reform that we see on television aren’t the norm.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy a spirited debate about issues – I’m all for such conversations as long as they don’t get out of hand. People should feel free to disagree with each other in a point/counterpoint way, not a loudmouthed, name-calling way. A debate without civility is an argument that never wins over the other side. (It’s true you might not win the other side over anyway, but at least your decorum should be respected by your opponent.)

Last week when I wrote my column for Ottawa Delivered about the new health-care reform law, I knew there would be plenty of people who disagreed with me. As always, my charge was to state my opinion and back it up – and to do so in a respectful way that made my points without resorting to cheap shots at those who would disagree with my stance.

I believe I succeeded in that task, and I’m proud to say that those who commented on my column and the health-care issue in general on Ottawa Delivered’s Facebook page kept the conversation civil and respectful of each other, even though there were definite differences in opinion being expressed.

Some people agreed with what I wrote. Others disagreed with me, but weren’t rude about it. I like to think this is the norm among those who engage in the health-care debate in “real America” (in other words, not on TV or otherwise in a glaring spotlight of mainstream media attention).

With that said, I want to compliment Adam Kinzinger for taking the simple step of saying a few words to defuse any potential ugliness that might have been waiting in the wings at his health-care forum in Ottawa last week.

When it comes to the health-care reform issue, I don’t agree with Kinzinger, the Republican nominee in Illinois’ 11th Congressional District race. I think the new health-care reform law isn’t perfect but is a move in the right direction; he agrees with the Republican party line of “repeal and replace” (which really isn’t a feasible plan, in my opinion). But as someone who values civil discourse, I appreciated Kinzinger’s appeal to his town-hall attendees not to jeer those who disagreed with them.

Guess what? It worked. Sure, most of the crowd probably agreed with Kinzinger’s point of view, but there were at least a few in the audience who didn’t – and they made it known through polite exchanges with the candidate.

I also liked that Kinzinger acknowledged there are some parts of the new health-care law he agrees with – specifically, not letting insurance companies deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, and allowing children to be insured under their parents’ plan until age 26.

Noting there are some good things to be found in an opponent’s plan can go a long way in fostering civil discourse. Unfortunately, politicians and mainstream political pundits willing to admit somebody with an opposing viewpoint has a decent idea might as well be placed on the endangered species list. That’s part of the reason why a relatively unknown politician like Barack Obama could ride a promise of bipartisanship all the way to the White House – because, in my opinion, most people want civil discourse rather than continual partisan bickering that accomplishes little.

We should expect no less from our elected officials. But remember, they ultimately take their cues from us. We must set the example for them – not the other way around.

A version of this column will appear in this week’s issue of Ottawa Delivered.

It upsets me sometimes when I hear or read about newspaper decision-makers complaining that new media (blogs, social networks, etc.) are their industry’s undoing. Yes, the Internet played a significant role in diminishing returns for newspapers and magazines. But the time for complaining about that is long past. Publications need to adapt or die, and that means embracing new media as part of the package being presented to readers. Yet many publications, especially smaller ones, are slow to accept this. Some even reject the idea altogether, believing there is little or no profit in adding new media to the mix.

Part of their problem is they don’t understand new media. For those who aren’t tuned in to the latest technologies and how they can be applied to journalism, new media can be intimidating. That is why many publications didn’t start embracing new media until recently. They just ignored the elephant in the room until profits dropped enough to force them to face their fears. But they still don’t know what to do about it.

At my last newspaper, I pushed and pushed for permission to write a blog about the community I covered. My editor hemmed and hawed about it every time I mentioned the idea, and it never happened. (Though, to be fair, he eventually authorized a general “reporter’s notebook” blog for all staff members to utilize. Unfortunately, I was the only reporter who regularly posted on it, and sadly, not a single entry has been added to the blog since the early November day when a wave of layoffs claimed my job.)

Lesson learned. Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns, even if it means doing it yourself. In my case, the editor didn’t understand or place adequate value on adding beat-centered blogs to the equation, so I should have developed one on my own (while keeping the boss in the loop, of course). There are plenty of Web sites that host blogs for free, and there is no reason not to use that to your advantage.

New media isn’t just blogs, of course. Facebook, Twitter and a host of other social networks can be used to further mine reporters’ beats, and yes, they are probably even more intimidating than blogs to the uninitiated. Fortunately for journalists who need help tackling new media, there is a great Web site called Save the Media, written by a 20-year veteran of newspapers who does an excellent job explaining how to use various new media and what their value is to reporters. I highly recommend it.

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The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books took place last weekend, and the L.A. Times did an excellent job covering the event on its Jacket Copy blog, which regularly features book news and information. I don’t know if the Chicago Tribune covers the annual Printers Row Book Fair in a similar manner — I was at the event both days last year, so I wasn’t reading about it on my computer at home — but it should. The L.A. Times provided extensive coverage of the Festival of Books, giving readers bits of what numerous speakers said during the event. It is a great example of using new media to enhance the reader’s experience.

The most interesting nugget I came across was this passage in a blog post about Farenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury:

Ray Bradbury is an old-timer at the Festival of Books. He’s been a featured speaker for nearly every one of the festival’s 13 years. But this may be his last, he warned, in an ultimatum at a panel on Saturday.

“They used to burn books; now they’ve burned the Book section at the L.A. Times,” Bradbury opined in reference to the book-burning heresy of his famous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. He demanded The Times “resurrect the Book section,” which, like most of the paper, has seen staff and page count cuts over the past year.

“If they don’t, I’m not going to come here again.”

And Bradbury, who calls himself the world’s greatest lover of books and who “does what he loves, and not what makes money,” may just be idealistic enough to do it.

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The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold hearings this week about the financial problems facing the newspaper industry. The hearings, set to begin Thursday, were called by U.S. Sen. John Kerry, whose state’s largest newspaper, The Boston Globe, is in danger of being shut down. I hope the hearings take a real look at the situation rather than turn into a press-bashing session for senators.

I also hope C-SPAN airs coverage of these hearings because I am interested in watching them, for obvious reasons. If I get to watch them in their entirety, I may use Twitter to provide real-time updates. In any case, you can expect to find coverage of the hearings here on The Bread Line.