The ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Chronicles, part 2: Lazy editorial editor of struggling community newspaper slanders 7,000 teachers — and makes it harder for reporters, the executive editor, and the publisher to find subscribers

Late update (8:30 p.m.):

GREAT NEWS. Just had a fantastic conversation with Brian Burns, Ledger publisher. He received more than 120 emails from you guys today. There will be a full correction. But more than that, The Ledger is going to write a big editorial addressing the issue and soliciting teacher voices for a big editorial page blowout (maybe Sunday.) Brian wants to hear your experiences — how we can support you in real ways. What the real challenges are. I’m really excited by this. I think Brian is a great potential ally in helping improve the daily experiences of our people and kids.

I would ask everybody this. The Ledger has heard you loud and clear. Let’s call off the dogs on critical emails — and start supplying voices that share the reality of being a teacher/para/prinicipal/educator in Polk County (good, bad, ugly).

And remember this, folks. You are powerful when you want to be.

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There are many parallels between school districts and institutional newspapers like The Ledger. The parallels between reporters and teachers are particularly deep. The Ledger, like the Polk School district, has very dedicated, talented reporters doing a hard job for no money and very little respect.

By and large, great teachers and great reporters do what they do because they love to serve the people of their communities. And they’re willing to suffer for it.

Bill Thompson isn’t one of those people.

He is the editorial page editor of the The Ledger, the newspaper equivalent of an educrat. He doesn’t do any reporting. He just writes stuff about stuff other people write — and The Ledger calls it the paper’s voice. That voice wrote this on Sunday about the mandatory pep rally our teachers were required to attend in the blazing heat last week.

Last week, Polk teachers threw themselves a big pep rally at Tigertown to boost morale. We believe they deserve our appreciation for all they do.

Yet, unless they are willing to accept that as the only attaboy they get in the near future, they should concretely signal that 2 percent is sufficient — if the School Board will do likewise.

That first paragraph is a weaponized falsehood, designed to create rhetorical momentum for the paragraph that follows. I don’t know if Thompson was willfully dishonest in writing this or just breathtakingly lazy. You can decide. It’s a distinction without a difference, really.

As I wrote in response Sunday morning on Facebook:

This is maybe the stupidest thing, among many, [Thompson] has ever written. [The Polk District’s] HR threw that pep rally. It was mandatory. Most teachers I talked to — and I talk to a lot — did not want to attend. They wanted to do their jobs. This was an HR play from beginning to end — and indicative of the human capital problems we have. It was broadly controversial within the district for weeks.

If you’re not going to do any journalism, you really ought not to comment on the journalism you don’t do, Bill. It makes your institution look silly.

“I will clarify that point with an editors note on Tuesday”

I sent a note this morning seeking correction to Thompson, new Ledger Publisher Brian Burns, and executive editor Lenore Devore. (Not really Lenore’s problem. I just copied her.)

And I publicly encouraged teachers to email Burns with the correct information. I think he received a few.

Thompson, who actually wrote the editorial, answered me by saying: “I will clarify that point with an editors note on Tuesday.”

Note the lack of professional urgency.

Thompson declared, utterly falsely, on behalf of The Ledger as an institution, that teachers “threw themselves” a pep rally that district leadership ordered them to attend. And then he used that lie to try to pressure them into accepting the negotiating position of the same leadership that forced them to attend the pep rally. He was then publicly called out about it.

His response: Yawn. Check back on Tuesday.

And we wonder why we have chronic teacher shortages and newspapers are struggling to stay in business. And no one has faith in any kind of institutional leadership.

Indeed, not only should this anger Polk teachers, it should anger the people trying to do good work and recruit subscribers for The Ledger. It’s never a good day when you casually lie about 7,000 subscribers or potential subscribers in your coverage area in the interest of constraining their economic interests.

And it’s insulting to the excellent, vital work that real reporters do. That’s why I would urge angry people not to kill your subscription. That would hurt the Gary Whites and Eric Peras and Chris Guinns and [recently departed and dearly missed] Madison Fantozzis of our community much more than anyone else.

Instead, I have a few better ideas.

A few suggestions

Encouragingly, Thompson’s boss Brian Burns, the new publisher, was considerably more energetic in his response to me. I think he will emphasize an accelerated response. We’ll see. As of 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, I still had seen no online correction.

But here a few more concrete ideas for Burns to consider moving ahead.

1) An institutional editorial voice for a newspaper is an anachronism. It influences no one and makes you suspicious to almost everyone. Do away with it. Take the money you pay Bill Thompson to speak for you and pay him to actually report on the community. Make the editorial page a place for public essays and letters-to-the-editor. This is the newspaper equivalent of taking educrat money and driving it down into the classroom.

2) Do some journalism on the pep rally — how it came about, how it was funded, the opportunity and staff costs of preparing for it.

3) Tell Bill to read me regularly. I’m just one board member; but I am a talkative one. I’m trying pretty hard to keep the public and The Ledger informed. Indeed, just this week I looped in Bill and Lenore on some annoying HR investigation public records cat-and-mouse I’m trying to work through with senior staff.

After all, I could have saved him some grief if he had just read this from a few days ago:

As a district, we display very little empathy for the people working and suffering on the ground in our schools and facilities. The people on the ground can’t take all the risks and suffer all the consequences for it while their leaders do neither. That’s a recipe for the morale problems that we have. It’s one of my most urgent concerns.

Monday’s mandatory pep rally, though well-intentioned, illustrates this somewhat. I’m going to have a constructive critique about the pep rally event in coming days. I did not attend; but I hear the speakers were quite good.

However, I think everyone agrees it was very, very, very hot. Our teachers and staff sat in a stadium without much shade from the morning summer sun. The board members and other VIPs sat in shaded dugout.

4) Launch a project about teacher support. Ask teachers how they want to be supported and celebrated — what would improve their lives and enthusiasm for their career. Look past the endlessly tired, morally cheap cliches about how much we love our teachers. Try to come up with a picture of what real love and celebration would look like.

I would share that article with happy emojis anywhere and everywhere.

One comment

  1. Michael Maguire

    Thanks, Billy, for all you do.

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