An Unfettered Press
The Small-Town Newspaper
By Denise Hyland
Shortly after Brenda Tallman had arrived as publisher at the Plattsburgh Press-Republican in northeastern New York State, in 1986, she learned an important lesson about small-town newspapering in the United States.
"You have to remember that the person you are talking about is probably related to the person you are talking to," she says with a slight grin.
Understanding human nature is absolutely essential to the survival and growth of America's small-town newspapers. Through the eyes of newspaper people, the grand designs of the U.S. Constitution's protection of press freedom appear less monumental when they are viewed alongside patterns of long-standing, close-knit relationships in a place like Plattsburgh.
Tallman, who has been in the newspaper business for all of her adult life, is an emphatic defender of press freedom. Since coming to Plattsburgh, she has had to resist community pressure on several occasions for the sake of full, fair, and accurate news coverage.
But in a small city like Plattsburgh, with a population of 26,000, one need not recite the constitutional protections from the rooftops. The sensibilities and close associations of small towns can be taken into account, Tallman believes, without damaging a newspaper's right to unfettered publication.
"Our role as a small-town newspaper is to make people aware of their surroundings and the changes that are taking place," Tallman explains during an interview at the modern newspaper plant, located in the downtown area. The population demographics have remained relatively stable for generations in Plattsburgh.
Government-related industries such as prisons, customs, and border patrols (Plattsburgh is some 45 kilometers from the U.S.-Canadian border) employ a large percentage of the civilian population.
"People who live here went to school with one another; they know everybody's sins and weaknesses; they remember the 'F' [failing grade] on the mathematics test in secondary school," explains Tallman. "Certainly we are mindful of the readership and the community we serve, and the makeup of the area. So we do some things that other papers don't. It's important if someone has won an award, and we do a lot of the 'chicken dinner' [community activities] stuff. That's our purpose."
The Press-Republican has a circulation of over 23,000 in a three-county area, placing it among the ranks of hundreds of other small U.S. dailies. Because their audiences are much smaller, more specific, and more familiar, community media such as local newspaper, television, and radio operations must approach the news differently from their big-city counterparts. Coverage is targeted to the needs and desires of a narrow audience. Thus, happenings that might rate only a line or two, if that, in a metropolitan paper receive full-blown attention in the local media.
A typical Sunday edition of the Press-Republican, for example, included a feature story, with a photograph, of a local woman leaving for a two-year Peace Corps stint in Thailand; an article, with a photograph, about a young doctor returning to her hometown to practice family medicine; and complete coverage of a fire-fighters' association awards banquet, with four photos.
The same issue also contained an article about a town governing board meeting, an interview with a construction worker alleging a chemical spill cover-up, information on a fatal airplane crash, and several pages of national and international news.
"National and world news do have some relation to our readers' lives, but our main goal is local news and commentary on that news," Tallman says. "That's going to be good, bad, and ugly."
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press regardless of who opposes publication of specific stories. Running a successful newspaper is a balancing act of giving the readership what a free society needs to know as well as what it wants to know, even if these goals sometimes seem at cross-purposes.
As the publisher, Tallman reviews each day's editorial pages before they are printed, and she has veto power over them. She has been known to ask some tough questions, but for the most part Tallman gives her editors free rein over the news pages.
"I have never rejected an editorial, but I have suggested that a word or two was too harsh," she says.
The Press-Republican is 1 of 22 dailies owned by Ottaway Newspapers, Inc., a subsidiary of Dow Jones & Company, Inc., publisher of the Wall Street Journal and 23 other dailies. With a combined circulation of 2.6 million, these publications make Dow Jones the sixth largest newspaper company in the United States.
Tallman has over 20 years of experience with Ottaway. As publisher, she oversees the Press-Republican's editorial, advertising, circulation, and production departments and is responsible for the paper's overall operations. Under her direction, the newspaper published its first Sunday edition in September 1987.
Although it is the journalism side of publishing that usually gets public attention, Tallman says each department plays an integral role in the paper's success.
"All of our efforts can go down the drain [fail] if any one of the pieces is missing," she says. "The thing that I like most about what I do is getting people to work together as a team."
Tallman got started in the newspaper business as a typesetter at age 18.
"My grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Holdredge, was a printer. He published a small paper in Norwich, New York, in 1906, a controlled-circulation weekly, mailed to every house. I think he was ahead of his time," Tallman says with obvious pride.
"I used to be fascinated by him operating the linotype machine."
Holdredge died in 1964, just one week before Tallman started her first job with a newspaper.
"We never got to compare notes," she says with regret.
She advanced quickly into classified advertising sales. Then, as one of a three-person staff at a weekly newspaper, she sold advertising, photographed and developed the page plates, took the plates to the printer, and loaded the papers and drove them to the post office.
"When you are not afraid to get your hands dirty, you can learn so much by doing," she says. In 1971, Tallman landed a sales job at the Oneonta (New York) Daily Star, another Ottaway paper. From there, Tallman was promoted to the Traverse City (Michigan) Record-Eagle in 1975 as classified advertising manager, and she moved up to publisher's assistant in 1978. Tallman became the Record-Eagle's general manager -- the first woman to become a top executive in the Ottaway company.
Assuming the top position at the Press-Republican in 1986 was a natural progression for one so versed in the everyday mechanics of small newspapers.
The Press-Republican, unlike its national media counterparts, does not often deal with heady issues such as political corruption or financial shakedowns. But true to the journalistic ideal, Tallman steadfastly resists any outside influence on or interference in the newsroom.
In 1986, for example, a national news magazine listed Plattsburgh Air Force Base as a facility that the U.S. government might close or modify in a military cost-cutting move. The Press-Republican set out to explore the potential impact of a closing.
"Some people wanted us not to say anything about the possible closing, in order not to stir things up," Tallman recalls. "They said we would then be creating fear in the community. But our readers had the right to know what was going on, and we kept trying to find out for them."
She received a phone call from a powerful community leader who strongly suggested that the paper ignore the entire issue, but Tallman adamantly refused to be swayed, and she instructed her editors and reporters to continue their investigations.
During a two-year period, the paper ran several stories on the possible closing, many of them on the front page. Its editorials were opposed to the closing. When the government issued the list of targeted bases, Plattsburgh was not on it, although it subsequently was slated for closure some years later.
"People do want us to tell them the tough stuff, too," she says. "We have the area's best interests at heart. Certainly we are not going to be around too long if we do not subscribe to the consensus. But that does not mean we are not going to state what we feel is the best thinking on the issues."
The Press-Republican also broke the story of three county officials who spent $7,000 in public money on one business trip to California -- as much as a neighboring county's legislators budgeted for an entire year's travel expenses. A four-part investigative series culminated with an editorial entitled "Spending Practices Obscene."
Tallman believes that those paid by the public must answer to the public -- through the watchful eyes of the media -- for everything they do during work time. But when looking into the private lives of public officials, the issues, she feels, are less clear-cut.
"I think we need to take every case on its own and assess it and review it," Tallman says. "I think scrutiny [of a person's personal life] is appropriate if what they are doing could affect their public performance."
She believes that legitimate news should be printed as news, no matter whom it involves. If, for example, the mayor's teenage son were to be arrested for driving while intoxicated and the mayor asked that the arrest go unreported in the newspaper, "we would not be inclined to honor that request."
She adds: "I cannot fathom a time when it would be in the public's interest to refrain from printing that kind of information about a particular person."
Sometimes, the small-town newspapers find themselves in a battle over First Amendment principles that their counterparts in larger cities rarely have to justify. Tallman describes a particular incident to illustrate how sensibilities in a smaller community differ from those in a big city -- and how it may be necessary to explain the practicality of constitutional protections to citizens who seldom deal with such issues.
"A local restaurant and bar was the first in the area to offer male dancers as entertainment. We ran a photo on page one -- of the audience response, not of the dancers -- and an irate man called up to say he was going to cancel his subscription because of it. He didn't feel that this information belonged in a family newspaper.
I explained that our obligation is to let the readers know what is going on in our community. We are telling you this is something new, and it's here.
"I asked him: 'What if we didn't report this, and you had decided to take your family for dinner there that night?' Well, he understood what I was saying, and he didn't cancel his subscription. But he had been angry about it, and he didn't know whom else to tell."
Like an increasing number of newspapers across America, the Press-Republican offers a "Speak Out" service to its readers. Individuals can telephone a special number and give their opinions freely on current issues or anything else that is bothering them. Comments are then transcribed by a secretary, edited for length and clarity, and published anonymously.
"Sometimes people just need to lash out, and we want to provide them with an opportunity to do so," Tallman says. "If they had to give their names, it would not work, because there's a fear of possible retribution in some cases."
In the interests of neutrality, Tallman has no affiliation with outside organizations. "I try to walk a very straight line on that," she says. To some in the community, such a connection might threaten to slant a paper's coverage.
Journalists, like other people, have individual beliefs, values, and opinions. Sometimes, they may be tempted to incorporate their personal views into their articles.
But Tallman says personal views should be put away before pens are put to paper, commenting: "We have to go the extra mile to make sure that bias is not in our articles. We have to choose our words carefully."
Are journalists as tough and unfeeling as some Hollywood movies have tended to portray them? Tallman does not think so.
"For the most part, I don't find journalists cold and calculating," she declares. "They are caring and understanding people, but they do have a job to do and they need to stay as neutral as possible, so they can represent the facts as they present themselves."
And that, says Tallman, is no easy task.
Denise Hyland is a free-lance writer in Rochester, New York.