June 29, 2015 Last Updated 1:50 pm

Berkshire Eagle editor explains to readers why papers print opinion pieces they may not agree with

Editor’s column comes after readers criticize paper for printing opinion column from area conservative critical of African-Americans that many readers felt went way too far

The editor of The Berkshire Eagle, Kevin Moran, late last week penned a column which attempts to explain his newspaper’s decision to publish a column that criticizes black culture and recommends that “blacks reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law.”

The Berkshire Eagle, for the record, is a daily newspaper of published in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The original column in question, by Steven Nikitas, entitled Here’s the solution for black America, received overwhelingly negative comments from readers online, prompting the response from the editor.

BE-front-420“What respectable business owner would hire a young black male from the “hood” who won’t even show up for work?” Nikitas wrote in his controversial column. “What successful enterprise is going to establish itself in crime-ridden inner cities? Isn’t looting and burning self-defeating?”

“Democrats have constructed a fortress welfare state that has extinguished black self-improvement while Republicans have warned that it is a dead end and have stressed economic opportunity and a work ethic instead.”

Readers were not happy with the column, but were split on the issue of the wisdom of the Eagle publishing it. Some recognized that the column was not the opinion of the paper, but that of the author, who is a local Republican. But others thought the column reflected badly on the newspaper.

“I totally agree that a newspaper needs to serve as a community forum, serving as an outlet for a wide range of views,” one reader commented. “Nikitas’s screed, however, is pure, unadulterated racism. It simply does not meet the standards for publication. It strikes me as fairly obvious that the Eagle would not publish a column in favor of burning crosses on African-American families’ lawns. This isn’t quite that bad, but it’s heading in that direction.”

Comments such as the one above prompted the column from the editor, who defended the paper’s decision to publish the article, though not the views of its author.

“Publishing an opinion column by any individual whose position is controversial and may run contrary to somebody or most everyone’s is not easy. The tough decision is to publish. It’s a fine line,” wrote Moran.

“So why then publish it? Here’s why: Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live, work, go to school, vote, debate, worship, pay taxes, make choices and decisions, etc.”

Moran’s thoughtful piece will likely be received positively by loyal readers of the paper, and got the attention of Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo who mentioned it (though he seemed to focus on the original column rather than Moran’s excellent response).

“When a viewpoint is espoused by a person or organization in a position of power or authority or who’s representing a doctrine, it can be a revelation — for better or for worse — to the rest of us,” Moran wrote. “It can also give the community a glimpse into that person or organization or political party’s sphere of reference, the spot from which they base their decisions and make their choices — decisions and choices that have the potential to affect the rest of us.”

“In this particular case, in my opinion, a writer for the Berkshire County wing of a national political party making its case for “sure-fire solutions for black America” is indeed a revelation — of apocalyptic proportions — if this is their prescription to heal the serious racial issues that confront the United States.”

But this episode illuminates a serious problem newspapers are facing: continuing to present diverse views at a time when the public is increasingly polarized. Many editors continue to press on, presenting opinion columns they believe represent different views from different parts of the political spectrum. It is, in many cases, a losing battle as readers cancel their subscriptions over the latest columns they disagree with.

Newspaper publishers are finding themselves increasingly at a loss as to how to stem the outflow of readers. How can a paper like The Berkshire Eagle continue to attract conservative readers when there is Fox News competing to reinforce their opinions? Does The Guardian’s new US website serve the liberal readers of Chicago better than the historically conservative Tribune?

One position some editorial boards have taken is to end political endorsements. The idea has merit, but probably does little to placate readers. Being relentlessly apolitical is probably impossible, and in the end pleases no one.

Moran does an excellent job of defending his paper’s decision to publish the Nikitas column, but I fear that media fragmentation will only make Moran’s job harder in the future, not easier.

I would remiss not to mention, since this is a digital publishing website, that The Berkshire Eagle is killing it when it comes to digital circulation. Like just about all newspapers, it has seen it print circulation fall. A decade ago it had around 30,000 in weekday circulation. A couple of years ago, weekend print circulation was around 19,000 with the paper starting to sell digital editions which brought its circ up to just under 24K. In its last statement, however, its print circulation was at 17.943, but it also claied 11,457 in digital edition circulation, bring its total circulation back up to 29,400, and its Sunday circulation well above where it was in 2012.

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