Online chat with Terry Headlee

October 09, 2005

Name: Darrell E. Kline

Question: What's going on at City Hall?

There is a lot of bickering and fighting with the Hagerstown City Council members. Is this the way our local government should act?

Headlee: Some of our readers have clearly told us that this isn't how our local government should act. We are watching this relationship closely because it is the business of anyone who not only lives in the city, but also in Washington County. I was just at a meeting this morning and it was the topic of discussion there. Some people said they hadn't seen anything quite like this since the late 1970s, early '80s. And that's saying a mouthful. What the newspaper will do is to accurately cover the meetings and the issues and let the citizens decide for themselves.

Name: Pamela Whalen

Question: Do we know when the City of Hagerstown is going to be trick-or-treating? I'm supposed to be going out of town that weekend and I've got a 4-year-old who is anxiously waiting to hear when he's able to trick-or-treat. Do you all know yet?


Headlee: We are gathering that information now. The problem is that many neighborhoods, even within Hagerstown, have their own trick-or-treat nights, and also the various communities in Washington County have theirs on different nights. We'll be running a complete listing of this in the very near future and we'll run it several times.

Moderator: Before you became an editor, you were a reporter from 1982 to 1995. What did that experience teach you about the newspaper business that helped you become a better editor?

Headlee: That there are more than many sides to a story and a good reporter will try to present the whole picture as best as he or she can. As an editor, knowing that has helped me through the years with personnel issues and hostile calls and e-mails from readers.

Moderator: What is the biggest change that has occurred in the business since you became a journalist?

Headlee: The technology, hands down. When I first started in this industry, I worked on an electric typewriter and there were no cell phones, Internet. There was a lot more face-to-face contact with sources. Technology has been a double-edged sword. We're far more efficient and can get the news more quickly to readers. But at the same time, I wish we did more personalized interviews with citizens and sources so reporters can get a better feel for the interview and can ask better follow-up questions, so that the story more accurately portrays what's really going on.

Moderator: As a person living in the newspaper's circulation area, do you ever find yourself being criticized by people you know when the paper covers something - such as the drunken-driving arrest of a prominent person - that many people would rather see kept quiet? What do you tell people who ask that such things be kept out of the newspaper?

Headlee: We are criticized, but not as much as you would think. I'm surprised that we don't get more criticism such as this from people. I think one of the reasons why is that through the years, we have routinely denied requests to take out negative stories such as drunken-driving arrests. We've also had people who have not wanted us to publish the fact that they got divorced. Some people have wanted us to take out the fact that they sold their house for X number of dollars. We don't discriminate; we publish them all. People are wasting their time asking us to keep it out of the paper. Because for fairness reasons, we have to treat everybody the same. And besides, it's all part of the public record.

Moderator: What is the toughest subject for a local newspaper to cover and why?

Headlee: The untimely death of a local resident. In recent years, we have been contacting family members and friends of persons who have died tragically due to auto accidents, wars and murders. The purpose of these stories is to show readers who this person was and that he or she is not just a statistic.

We are criticized for this by some readers, but what many don't know is that we have certain guidelines on dealing with these types of stories. We always put the family's feelings first. We never cover a funeral unless we get permission from the family. We go to great lengths to be sensitive about our photos. I can also tell you that in many cases, we receive phone calls, letters and e-mails from those family members or friends thanking us for covering that story.

Moderator: The Mail Call and You Said It columns generate a great deal of response from readers, both positive and negative. How do you respond to critics of the column?

Headlee: Some of their complaints are valid. And I can understand why some readers dislike it. However, the column is among the best-read articles that we publish every day.

A recent survey showed that 70 percent of the readers looked at it every day. And 90 percent of them found it interesting or somewhat interesting.

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