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Publisher was a journalist to his core

July 24, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Frequently, it’s easy to spot the people who are looking out for your interests. They wear doctor’s smocks or police uniforms, or they were always there for you when you came to school or needed legal help.

But for the last two decades and beyond, people in the Tri-State area have had an ally whom they might not have known about, only because they never had the chance to see him in action.

I am only now free to write about former Herald-Mail publisher John League because he has retired — as of last week — and is not here to stop me. Attention is not a thing that John has ever cared for.

But on any number of occasions, I heard him explain why he got into journalism. Attention was not the reason, nor was money or fame. The reason was you.

Especially if you were up against it, or if you were being bullied by authority or had gotten a raw deal. John’s mission, and what he believed should be the mission of all journalists, was to give a voice to those who would otherwise have had none.

When he was city editor in the ’80s, it could be interesting to watch. At the first hint of skullduggery, his brow would begin to darken and then go full tornado alley if it turned out that someone in authority was trampling the rights of the little guy.

As long as the brow wasn’t darkening in your direction, it was a beautiful thing to watch.

I know that there were people all across our region for whom John and his staff went to bat, even if they would never know who to thank. And no thanks were necessary — it was all part of the job. At its most basic element, a good newsroom is in the business of asking questions, believing no one and righting wrongs. And, for John, that’s what made the job fun.

Done right, it’s an exciting business. Nothing crackles like a newsroom on an election night or when a calamity occurs two hours before deadline. Come midnight, editors here used to have to tell their reporters to go home. At least once, two reporters engaged in an actual fistfight over who got to cover a choice story.

I don’t think I’m betraying any secrets by saying that after John was named publisher 20 years ago, I would see him cast wistful glances back at the newsroom every so often. He was publisher, but I’m pretty sure he never stopped thinking of himself as a journalist. Luckily for our readers, he had taught a lot of other people here to be journalists as well.

“Journalist” is a mantle of honor, or it used to be, anyway. I know it’s way too easy, and usually incorrect, to romanticize about the old days (for me, journalism officially died when they banned smoking in the newsroom and a flask in every desk), when journalists had teeth and didn’t care what you thought of them and didn’t have to worry about a “web presence” or stripped-down newsroom budgets or social media (media that are true media in the sense that frogmen are true frogs).

I don’t know that newspaper people ever were thought of as heroes, nor would they have been comfortable with the title. A hero suggests an elevated status; journalists were always more at home down in the grit.

But I do know that newspapers were admired. I know that people thought of the hometown newspaper as a friend (and if you didn’t like the paper’s politics, you switched; every town had at least two).

But today, papers make headlines themselves, and for the wrong reasons. Even the venerable New York Times went soft, it’s reporters got cozy with the presidential administration and the result was the war in Iraq.

And what if, a month ago, someone had told you that the News of the World would go out of business before Borders.

It is perhaps this case that is most instructive. Phone hacking is wrong in any form, obviously, but as long as the News Corp. empire was hacking into the phones of politicians, celebrities and the elite, nothing came of it. That changed when it began hacking into the phones of average people, the very people newspapers are supposed to protect.

That’s the rule that John League taught me, for which I’ve been more grateful than he knows. It has guided a lot of what I’ve done here. But if I ever seem disenchanted with authority or doubtful of the veracity of the people in charge — well, you now know who to blame.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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