Monday's Pulitzer Prize winners included the Storm Lake, Iowa Times, a twice-weekly publication with a circulation of 3000. Editor Art Cullen was honored for his editorial writing, which has fearlessly taken on big targets, including Iowa's powerful agricultural industry and his district's representative in Congress.
Radio host Jim Bohannon sent us a note, wondering whether radio and television stations in small markets are able to approach their work in the same kind of fearless manner. While few broadcasters these days offer regular editorials, many are willing to aggressively investigate big businesses and political figures, and stand up to authorities to report the news to their communities. We asked radio station owner and journalist Ed Perry of WATD-FM in Massachusetts, a small market station that has won more than 20 national Edward R. Murrow Awards, for his quick take on that question:
Are small market stations able to take on big targets if there are stories to be told?
You have to be willing to take risks, and you have to be wiling to do it even if it'll cost you money. I got arrested once, trying to cover a story about a carjacking. It happened at a local shopping mall that wasn't keen on having people know it happened there. They told me to leave and I refused, so they had me arrested for trespassing. My wife bailed me out, we reported the story anyway, and I sued. We donated the settlement to the legal defense of journalists. And while the police in that town were arresting me, the police in the next town over gave us an award for helping them track down the suspect. It was news that mattered to the community, so we reported it. I've run stories that have cost me lots of money. The mall banned me for life, but I can get my underwear someplace else.
As both a journalist and a station owner, you have some freedom to make that kind of choice. What would you say to other station owners, nervous about news coverage that might reflect negatively on advertisers?
If you're going to be an effective ad medium, people have to believe what you say. If they think your newsroom can be influenced by advertisers or politicians, you're in trouble. You have to have the firewall, so news can do what's necessary to inform their community about important issues. Without it, the audience thinks we're being paid to say what we say. Keep the money separate from the content to preserve credibility. It can be uncomfortable at times, but you have to represent the interests of the community, not the advertisers. It's easy to get trapped in the idea that your advertisers are your customers. In truth, your listeners or viewers are your customers. If you serve your audience well, the advertising dollars will follow.
How can small market stations make a big impact?
You have to serve your community day in and day out. Some of the cable news networks are accused of leaning one way or another. But when it comes to local news, you're representing a community geographically, not demographically. The infrastructure needs to be in place so when news is happening, you can be the source they turn to and be the source they can trust.