May 3, 2004

By Diane McFarlin
Publisher, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune

The pledge to practice journalism “without fear or favor” is one that all journalists make. But their ability to live up to that oath is largely in the hands of the person who sits in the front office.

Publishers are the ones who must set a tone of independence and impartiality — not only by what they say, but also by what they do when the pressure is on.

It was a publisher who coined the phrase “without fear or favor.” That publisher was Adolph Ochs, who promised readers when he acquired The New York Times in 1896, that it would be his “earnest aim to … give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved.”

Ochs lived up to this pledge when one of his financiers demanded final approval of a Times story. In his unequivocal denial of this request, Ochs wrote that “…The New York Times will only be a success when it is conducted strictly as a newspaper, free from the control and the influence of anyone except those who are wholly occupied in it publication.”

Ochs later observed that “an enterprising, progressive, fair and well-conducted newspaper of good typographical appearance, well established in a community, is a more profitable advertising medium than a widely circulated inferior newspaper…”

That same belief emboldens contemporary publishers who steadfastly guard their newsrooms from angry advertisers and manipulative power brokers.

As an editor, I was fortunate to work for such publishers.

Publishers like John Fitzwater, who ran interference for his Gainesville Sun newsroom while we uncovered scandals in the athletic department, rattling a business community that thrived on the success of its University of Florida Gators.

Publishers like Lynn Matthews who, when a large advertiser canceled a half-million-dollar contract with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune because of an unflattering investigative series, said to me, “Just tell me that you’re sure you got it right.”

Lynn liked to say, “We sell credibility.” He understood that the better and more courageous a newspaper, the more intense its readership. The stronger its readership, the greater its chances for economic success.

It’s the circle of life of quality newspapers.

It’s a circle that Adolph Ochs understood so well, and embraced without fear or favor.

This Values Moment was originally presented at the recent ASNE convention.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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