Should news values change with the times?

Publisher George G. Booth stands at the entrance to the newly opened Detroit News building in 1917, the year after the paper set forth its standards in a style book. (Detroit News photo)

Vigorous, but not vicious. Interesting, but not sensational. Fearless, but fair. They were core values for The Detroit News — in 1916. Are they appropriate standards for the 21st century?

I recently came across a style book, dated the year before The News moved into its present building, that gave a detailed explanation of the values the newspaper intended to live up to.

A few passages are amusing for how dated they sound.

For instance:

“Time heals all things but a woman’s damaged reputation,” the guidance reads. “Even if a woman slips, be generous; it may be a crisis in her life. Printing the story may drive her to despair; kindly treatment may leave her with hope.”

The bulk of them, however, seem dead on, 96 years later.

For example:

  • Use plain language
  • Be brief
  • Be fair
  • Find the most interesting facts in any story
  • Fix mistakes

One of my favorites:

“It is not necessary to tell the people that we are honest, or bright, or alert, or that a story appeared exclusively in our paper… An honest man does not need to advertise his honesty.”

They’re remarkably relevant values today, wouldn’t you agree? Can we still live up to them? Should we?

The full text of the newspapers goals a century ago:

“The Aim of The Detroit News”

“Formation of a newspaper’s ideals comes through a process of years. The best traditions of the past, blending with hopes of the future, should be the writer’s guide for the day. Nov. 1, 1916, the editor-in-chief of The Detroit News, in a letter to the managing editor, wrote his interpretation of the principles under which the staff should work, in striving toward those journalistic ideals to which this paper feels itself dedicated. His summary of the best practices of the profession follows:

The Detroit News should be:

Vigorous, but not vicious.
Interesting, but not sensational.
Fearless, but fair.
Accurate as far as human effort can obtain accuracy.
Striving ever to gain and impart information.
As bright as possible, but never sacrificing solid information for brilliancy.
Looking for the uplifting rather than the depraved things of life.
We should work to have the word RELIABLE stamped on every page of the paper.

The place to commence this is with the staff members: First, getting men and women of character to do the writing and editing; and then training them in our way of thinking and handling news and other reading matter.

If you make an error you have two duties to perform—one to the person misrepresented and one to your reading public. Never leave the reader of The News misinformed on any subject. If you wrongfully write that a man has done something that he did not do, or has said something that he did not say, you do him an injustice—that’s one. But you also do thousands of readers an injustice, leaving them misinformed as to the character of the man dealt with. Corrections should never be made grudgingly. Always make them cheerfully, fully, and in larger type than the error, if there is any difference.

The American people want to know, to learn, to get information. To quote a writer: “Your opinion is worth no more than your information.” Give them your information and let them draw their own conclusions. Comment should enlighten by well marshaled facts, and by telling the readers what relation an act of today has to an act of yesterday. Let them come to their own conclusions as far as possible.

No issue is worth advocating that is not strong enough to withstand all the facts that the opposition to it can throw against it. Our readers should be well informed on both sides of every issue.

Kindly, helpful suggestions will often direct officials in the right, when nagging will make them stay stubbornly on the wrong side. That does not mean that there should be any lack of diligence in watching for, and opposing, intentional criminals.

A staff can be good and strong only by having every part of it strong. The moment it becomes evident that a man, either by force of circumstance or because of his own character, does not fit into our organization, you do him a kindness and do justice to the paper by letting him know, so he can go to a calling in which he can succeed, and will not be in the way of filling the place with a competent man.

No one on the staff should be asked to do anything that will make him think less of himself or the paper.

MAKE THE PAPER GOOD ALL THE WAY THROUGH, so there will not be disappointment on the part of a reporter if his story is not found on the first page, but so he will feel that it must have merit to get into the paper at all. Avoid making it a “front-page paper.”

Stories should be brief, but not meager. Tell the story, all of it, in as few words as possible.

Nature makes facts more interesting than any reporter can imagine them. There is an interesting feature in every story, if you will dig it out. If you don’t get it, it is because you don’t dig deep enough.

The most valuable asset of any paper is its reputation for telling the truth; the only way to have that reputation is to tell the truth. Untruth due to carelessness or excessive imagination injures the paper as much as though intentional.

Everyone with a grievance should be given a respectful and kindly hearing; especial consideration should be given the poor and lowly, who may be less capable of presenting their claims than those more favored in life. A man of prominence and education knows how to get into the office and present his complaint. A washerwoman may come to the door, timidly, haltingly, scarcely knowing what to do, and all the while her complaint may be as just as that of the other complainant, perhaps more so. She should be received kindly and helped to present what she has to say.

Simple, plain language is strongest and best. A man of little education can understand it, while the man of higher education, usually reading a paper in the evening after a day’s work, will read it with relish. There is never any need of using big words to show off one’s learning. The object of a story or an editorial is to inform or convince; but it is hard to do either if the reader has to study over a big word or an involved sentence. Use plain English all the time. A few readers may understand and appreciate a Latin or French quotation, or one from some other foreign language, but the big mass of our readers are the plain people, and such a quotation would be lost on the majority.

Be fair. Don’t let the libel laws be your measure in printing of a story, but let fairness be your measure. If you are fair, you need not worry about libel laws.

Always give the other fellow a hearing. He may be in the wrong, but even that may be a matter of degree. It wouldn’t be fair to picture him as all black when there may be mitigating circumstances.

It is not necessary to tell the people that we are honest, or bright, or alert, or that a story appeared exclusively in our paper. If true, the public will find it out. An honest man does not need to advertise his honesty.

Time heals all things but a woman’s damaged reputation. Be careful and cautious and fair and decent in dealing with any man’s reputation, but be doubly so—and then some—when a woman’s name is at stake. Do not by direct statement, jest or careless reference raise a question mark after any woman’s name if it can be avoided—and it usually can be. Even if a woman slips, be generous; it may be a crisis in her life. Printing the story may drive her to despair; kindly treatment may leave her with hope. No story is worth ruining a woman’s life—or a man’s, either.

Keep the paper clean in language and thought. Profane or suggestive words are not necessary. When in doubt, think of a 13-year-old girl reading what you are writing.

Do not look on newspaper work as a “game,” of pitilessly printing that on which you are only half informed, for the mere sake of beating some other paper; but take it rather as a serious, constructive work in which you are to use all your energy and diligence to get all the worth-while information for your readers at the earliest possible moment.”

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2 comments

  1. Timeless tips for a century later. Multi-platform journalism certainly avoids making it a “front-page paper.”

    And now it’s even more imperative that “stories should be brief, but not meager.”

    The more things change . . .

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