For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
April 17, 1996 - Talking to the Paper
If you're active in public affairs, sooner or later you're going to get quoted in the newspaper.
You imagine, of course, that you'll come across the same way you do in person: intelligent, witty, even, well, quotable. You just know that the reading public will grasp and agree with your comments immediately.
Instead, either you get quoted saying something completely incomprehensible, or exactly contrary to your real feelings, or -- worst of all -- undeniably dim. I've done all of these myself, and I know what I'm talking about.
How does it happen? There are three explanations.
(1) You actually do say something incomprehensible, contrary, or dim.
(2) The reporter goofed. He or she was hurriedly trying to jot down the gist of your impassioned comments, and got it wrong. But try this sometime yourself and see how well you catch somebody's exact phrasing. Mistakes happen, especially when the speaker is really excited about something (which is when the newspaper wants to talk to someone in the first place).
(3) It's a conspiracy. If you're a conservative, then it's a liberal media bias. If you're a liberal, then it's just another example of crass, sensationalist commercialism.
Guess which one accounts for MOST of the problem? (Hint: not 2; not 3.)
One of the main reasons I write a column for the newspaper is just to get the opportunity to edit my own comments. I find I'm less likely to embarrass the library (or my family). And sometimes it takes some heavy editing.
But because of my involvement with public libraries, I really have learned a few things about talking to the media over the years. In the hope that some of you might benefit from my big and little gaffs, here are a few things to keep in mind.
* Work out something ahead of time. This is best. Know what you want to say to the media BEFORE you talk to them. Write down a simple statement, or at least a brief outline, then stick to it. A humorous comment or analogy is good, and may make your point perfectly. But try the colorful comment on a friend, first.
* Keep it simple. Most newspaper writers, and readers, expect to find most of the story at the beginning. Get to the point, keep it succinct, and shut up.
* In general, don't improvise or speculate. When reporters are looking for a story, they'll ask you, often in the most flattering way, to explain things -- to give some background, to try to help the reporter understand the issue more completely. The request is usually sincere. And such conversation is often very useful -- it's the way we figure out what we DO think. But comments from these discussions, taken out of context, often wind up on the front page. Then you have to explain to people that you didn't exactly say THAT, although you said something LIKE that, but your POINT was different. As you might suspect, this kind of confusion is almost impossible to clear up.
* Try to be fair. It's best, of course, to tell the truth. But if you can't see your way clear to do that (or honestly don't KNOW what's true), at least try to leave room for today's enemy to become tomorrow's friend.
Finally, remember that even when you do make a mistake: this too shall pass, making way like headlines for the next disaster.
And you can quote me.