Published 12:00 am Friday, May 5, 2000

Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / May 5, 2000

There’s a certain dissatisfaction among the public at large regarding the news business and it’s not really fair.

The news business is quite peculiar, to be sure. We often are the first torush to the scene of disaster, while most sensible people are trying to get away from it. From traffic accidents to hurricanes, anyone with sensedoesn’t try to go there but avoid it.

However, the public has this mind-set that all reporters want to do is look for disaster and scandal. At the same time, it is a widespread belief, borneout by circulation figures, that what the public is most interested in reading about are – disaster and scandal.

It’s just not fair.

On the other hand, in a response to just this dilemma, an experiment was once tried at a daily newspaper.

In March 1900, just over a century ago, the Topeka, Kansas Daily Capital was challenged by a local clergyman. Congregationalist minister Dr. Charles M.Sheldon proposed that the newsroom, rather than emphasizing the usual crime and violence, emphasized good news for one week.

The results were surprising, to say the least.

Dr. Sheldon was already something of a national celebrity, being the best-selling author of his published sermons titled, “What Would Jesus Do?” which sold 30 million copies in 1896.

When Dr. Sheldon arrived on that fateful day in the Daily Capital newsroom,he immediately instituted several changes in reporters’ manners. Smoking,drinking and profanity were banned, and advertisements for patent medicines, corsets and sporting events were likewise eliminated.

Signed editorials became front-page news, while crime, society events and theatrical notices were downplayed. A front-page story on a famine in Indiaincluded an appeal for donations to a relief fund. That fund generated morethan $1 million.

Daily circulation jumped from 15,000 to 367,000. While much of that wasdue to the novelty of the experiment, which had acquired national attention, Dr. Sheldon claimed it was because newspaper readers craved a more good-news approach.

What was the end result of the grand experiment? When the week was over, the cigars and gin flasks returned to the reporters’ desks, crime and scandal returned to the front page and circulation plummeted back to its accustomed levels.

While we at L’Observateur must report the disaster and scandal as they happen, we also look for the good news in our area. That’s part of our dutyas a community newspaper.

However, we urge our readers to help us find all we can and not blame the messenger for the bad news.

For in reality, news can be good or bad, but it’s only wrong if it’s not reported fairly and correctly.

Leonard Gray is a reporter for L’Observateur.

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