Nancy Barnes: Public service, and not just in an everyday way

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • April 12, 2008 - 4:18 PM

A fundamental role of any news organization is to provide public service to the community. Even as newspapers undergo major shifts in how they gather and deliver the news, this is a core value that remains fundamental to our role. We should be conscious of this in our daily work, but we would like to provide deeper and more sustained service over time.

This year, I have asked every news-gathering department to think about what single project it would like to undertake above and beyond its usual work. Some departments are still working on developing and refining their projects; others are well underway.

The features department, for example, chose to produce a special section on living green. It is finishing reporting and editing this section, showing the myriad ways you can be more friendly to the environment -- and sometimes your wallet -- in how you choose to live.

In our enterprise department, providing public service in a different way, editors and reporters are close to launching a watchdog blog, where readers can ask questions about their government or community that our reporters will try to answer. We'll share more details on that when it is launched.

Business, metro and sports have several targets in mind and we are still zeroing in on their projects for this year.

As part of this effort, I'd like to invite readers to suggest ideas for significant stories or investigations you think the paper should be pursuing as a matter of public service.

• • •

Last week, our gossip columnist, C.J., wrote an item regarding a set of conjoined twins, Abigail and Brittany Hensel, whose family has tried to enjoy as normal a life as possible. They want to live without everyone talking about them. In this instance, C.J. talked about spotting the pair and trying to follow them at the Mall of America and her internal debate with herself when she realized that was the wrong thing to do. We later learned that the article upset the family and the twins.

Now, C.J.'s column often ticks off its targets; it's part of the give and take of a gossip column. However, in this instance, we could have handled this better. Nobody on staff intended any harm, but in writing about this incident, we crossed over the line between covering gossip and being unintentionally hurtful to people in their private lives. This was a voyeuristic bit of writing that we should have kept out of the paper.

We did double harm by issuing an apology that, in part, suggested it was the family's fault for misunderstanding our intent. We fumbled our handling of this and I apologize to the family.

• • •

Finally, regarding our endless winter and the meteorologist who covers the weather for us:

Many readers have written and called asking if Paul Douglas will continue his column on the back of the metro sections following his recent departure from WCCO. We are working with Paul to determine the future of that column, and I'll let readers know where we end up. For now, the column will remain.

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