The work that the staff at the Joplin Globe has done since the May 22, 2011, tornado has been remarkable and it has been honored via various local, regional, and national awards.
There was even a time when the Globe was mentioned as a possible Pulitzer Prize contender for its tornado coverage.
Now that nearly a year and a half has passed since the event that changed this city forever, it is possible to take a more realistic look at the Joplin Globe. While the tornado gave the staff an opportunity to show its resilience in the wake of a tragedy that killed one of its own and caused others to lose their homes, it has also exposed glaring weaknesses in the newspaper.
I have written about some of these in the past.
-The Globe provided sparse coverage of the manner in which Bruce Speck became president of Missouri Southern State University. Let us not forget that Speck was the only candidate interviewed for the position and, at this writing, the Globe has never mentioned the problems, including accusations of racial bias, that hounded Speck at his previous employer, Austin Peay University. This lack of coverage was compounded when a Globe reporter began actively pursuing stories about the problems at the university and was shut down by Publisher Michael Beatty, who not only had the reporter moved to a different beat, but sent an e-mail to Speck outlining positive stories the newspaper wanted to run about the university, and advised Speck on how to handle those pesky media people. There is nothing wrong with covering positive stories about Missouri Southern State University; it should be done- in conjunction with the uncomfortable stories that are bound to come up from time to time.
-The Globe’s obituaries policy, which pretty much relegates people to second class status unless they have money. The downward spiral the Globe (and many other newspapers) has been on for the past two decades started with this decision to start milking money from grieving families. The same thing has happened to other items of record that have always attracted readers to newspapers- weddings, engagements, anniversaries, etc. They are only included if you have the money to pay for them, thus eliminating the type of news items that used to keep loyal subscribers even in tough economic times. When the Globe and its out-of-state owners decided that news wasn’t news any more, it eliminated the reason many people took the newspaper.
-A disdain for Joplin news- I will never forget former Globe Publisher Dan Chiodo’s reasoning for starting the free Joplin News Herald a few years back- there wasn’t enough room in the newspaper for Joplin news. Of course, the News Herald was just a way for the Globe to blunt GateHouse Media’s ill-conceived Joplin Daily startup. After the Daily bit the dust, it suddenly wasn’t necessary to provide a vehicle for Joplin news any more. That’s the way things work when you don’t have competition.
-It’s always regional. The Globe apparently doesn’t allow many stories about something good or bad going on in Joplin without making sure that the same story is being covered for Webb City, Carl Junction, Neosho, and whatever other communities it can add. Sometimes, more space is devoted to these other communities. The Globe often forgets that while it is the area’s paper of record, it is also the Joplin Globe. Apparently, that forgetfulness is not an accident since the newspaper’s flag features a large “Globe” and a small “Joplin” (which is probably just there to keep anyone from complaining).
-Back to Missouri Southern for a moment- Newspapers should always be the chief defenders of the First Amendment, but the Globe did not back the students at The Chart during their First Amendment clashes with Bruce Speck. It also offered no coverage of the dismissal of advisor T. R. Hanrahan, definitely a First Amendment story if I have ever seen one. The Globe stood silent. Not one editorial backing the Chart, not one news story digging into the dismissal of Hanrahan.
In the months since the tornado, I have written only a small amount of criticism of the Joplin Globe, realizing that the newspaper, like the rest of Joplin, has been going through the recovery process. I probably should have been writing more because the Globe’s problems are continuing to multiply.
The Globe has done an excellent job with feature stories about the tornado and veteran reporter Wally Kennedy has provided solid coverage of what is happening with the city’s businesses.
Where is the digging into how money is being spent in the city since the tornado? The Globe did a good series several months ago, allowing officials to explain where the money is being spent, but why has the newspaper not been exploring 990 forms to see how foundations and charitable organizations are distributing money. What percentage is going to those in need and how much is going toward salaries and expenses. I am not saying there is any scandal, but even a reassuring story on how the money is being spent serves the public good.
Joplin taxpayers also need more in-depth coverage of how money is being spent by the city and school.
One glaring weakness of the Joplin Globe was exposed in the days and months after the tornado. The newspaper has no one with the writing skill that would have enabled the newspaper to become the one indispensable voice in covering the tornado, instead of one of many.
No offense intended, but Mike Pound is not Mike Royko, never has been, never will be. While he has a devoted readership, I am sure, the newspaper needed someone with the ability to speak to the heart of the city and to be the mirror of the city to the world. Mike Pound does not have that ability. If you are going to devote a section of your newspaper to a columnist on a daily basis, that columnist has to be a must read. The post-tornado time was the first opportunity we had to see if Mike Pound could rise to the occasion. It did not happen.
The small blurb at the end of Pound’s daily columns spells out the biggest problem he has. “Do you have an idea for Mike Pound’s column?” It is becoming more and more obvious that he doesn’t.
And there was no one else who could take up the slack. That is not Editor Carol Stark’s strong point; Beatty is a company hack, and if any of the other reporters has the ability to become the voice of the community, they have never been given the opportunity and most likely never will be.
The Globe recently published a special section detailing achievements in area schools. I was amazed to see that half of the section was devoted to Thomas Jefferson, College Heights, and the Joplin Area Catholic Schools. Even the half that was set aside for the Joplin public schools featured a page about Thomas Jefferson. That was most likely a kiss-up for the big advertisers who send their children to Thomas Jefferson, but the Joplin public schools have greater enrollment by far than the other schools combined. Again, your highest potential readership is among the parents of children attending public schools. I don’t say that because I work for Joplin Schools, I say it because it is a matter of simple arithmetic. It is a continuation of that same policy that has hurt the Globe since it started charging for weddings, obituaries, engagements, and anniversaries. If you have money, you are more worthy of coverage.
The Globe also has made a habit, as many newspapers do, of putting its newest and most inexperienced reporters on the education beat, a practice that is shortsighted since education stories affect more readers than almost anything else a newspaper covers. Many of those reporters have done well, but often their lack of experience and lack of knowledge of who the players are and where they can find information that might not be available though the traditional sources is telling.
OPINION AND EDITORIAL PAGES
Nothing spelled out more clearly the Globe’s inability to feel the pulse of the community than its ill-fated attempt to add local bloggers. Judging from how they were used, the idea behind the bloggers was to draw readers to the Globe’s website and to give the newspaper some local flavor on its opinion pages. Instead of looking for the best writers, the Globe apparently sought people who fit some preconceived notion of what the editors thought the political discussion in the community was. Only they never wrote about the community; it was always either the Fox News Channel talking points, or in the case of one lone blogger, the anti-Fox News Channel talking points. Why should people go to the Joplin Globe for warmed over repeats of the same things they have heard on Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity the day before?
Come to think of it, they didn’t. Most of the comments on those blogs were made by the bloggers themselves as they argued or agreed with each other. The Globe would have been better off just finding good writers and telling them to write about what interested them. Having an opinion does not make you a good columnist or blogger, especially if it is the same opinion already expressed by someone who does it better.
That is just a partial list of the problems I see with the Joplin Globe.
A couple of weeks ago, I said I would reveal my blueprint for how a competitor could challenge the Joplin Globe. I will provide that tomorrow. (That blueprint has now been provided at this link.)
I await your comments.