Harry's Gang: A few life lessons from Rotary Club
December 8, 2023
I recently had the fun of chatting with some members of the local Rotary Club. Rotary, for those of you who don’t know, is a service club of local professionals and business people, whose mission seems to be networking with fellow members, coupled around public service. They meet for lunch weekly, and get themselves involved in community projects from providing books for young readers to maintaining Fauley Park in Cloquet.
When I first got to town in 1999, Cloquet schools superintendent Russ Smith sponsored me in my membership, mostly as a favor to one of my bosses, Tom Skare. Russ interviewed me first, and one comment from that meeting stuck out: “Attendance matters,” he said, his voice reminiscent of the school teacher he once was. He was right: you can’t network and you can’t participate in good deeds if you don’t show up.
Rotarians have a code called “The Four-Way Test” that I have found applies in just about every situation, and specifically to the Pine Knot News.
The first part of the test is: “Is it the truth?” Simple. If it’s not true, we should not be saying it. Newspapers, like business people, must be credible, or no one will trust them. The trend in today’s larger markets seems to be to find alternative ways to present information. Uncomfortable news is often “twisted” to fit a certain viewpoint. That may be OK for a cable TV network, but it’s death to a local community newspaper. At our paper, publishing the truth is paramount. If news hasn’t been verified and cross-checked, we don’t publish it.
“Is it fair to all concerned?” Fairness is elusive. Just ask any child under 12 — ‘it’s not fair!” may be the most common defense ever. Kids learn pretty quickly that life isn’t fair. But wouldn’t it be nice if it were? Striving for fairness is a virtue. At a community newspaper, reporting must be fair, or it’s not news. Even opinions must be fair, or soon no one will respect the writer. More importantly, sources won’t trust the newspaper if they don’t feel they will be treated fairly. And part of fairness is admitting an error, and trying to correct it, which is why we print corrections when needed. Even for something as simple as a misspelled name.
“Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” For the newspaper, this one is the most difficult to honor. But I think the Pine Knot News does a pretty good job at it. In our role as a watchdog over the government, we sometimes need to publish stories that actually expose wrongs and may even disturb friendships. But that’s too narrow a view, I believe, of this prong of The Four-Way Test. Certainly, the human interest stories, stories about events and organizations and, of course, the sports page, are all examples of the newspaper’s role in building goodwill and better friendships. I am still stuck on the hard news, though. On the surface, reporting hard news — such as criminal cases, government action, and local tragedy — doesn’t always promote “goodwill and better friendships.” But such hard news is a large part of our role as a community newspaper. If we can honorably carry out that mission, I believe we’ve satisfied the third prong of the test.
“Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” I love this part of The Rotary Four-Way Test. The whole point of providing news focused on the local community is to benefit our readers. More than once, I have wanted to write opinion pieces about national issues and policy, such as gun control and reproduction rights. But as a community newspaper, most of those issues are just a small part of our readers’ daily lives. Important issues, certainly, but what benefit does Carlton County get from my views on our president, or recent congressional action? Not much. As a newspaper, reporting on local news provides a benefit that, really, isn’t duplicated anywhere else. It’s the whole reason we have the Pine Knot News.
Rotarians chant The Four-Way Test at the end of every meeting. Chatting with those Rotary members was a good reminder to apply their test to my everyday life.