Hard work and judgement come with the territory

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 17, 2005

Jonathan McElvy/Times Publisher

Whether we’re sitting among family members or over a meat-and-veggie lunch, my Dad and I have developed quite an interesting debate.

Dad has practiced law for nearly 30 years in Alabama and, this year, he serves as president of the Alabama Bar Association. (No, I’m not shy about bragging on him.)

I have practiced journalism for almost a decade in Alabama and my list of accomplishments pales in comparison.

During frequent discussions, Dad and I debate which of us has the most stressful job. The debates – at least on his part – are not fashioned in the “woe-is-me” sense. Rather, they are fruitful conversations that help me understand how to manage a newspaper.

This week, Dad sent me a copy of the most recent issue of “The Alabama Lawyer,” in which he writes a column.

The column deals with the responsibility of a lawyer, not only in the workplace but also in the home. Dad, if I don’t mind saying so, does an excellent job spelling out the realities of an attorney’s work.

“If you think about it, we lawyers have a uniquely tough job,” he writes. “I can think of no other profession where just about all of our daily activities… include an equal but opposite professional to object to our statements and proclaim that everything we say is either illogical, misinterpreted, misguided or an obvious distortion of the truth…”

As Dad puts it, there are few – if any – other professionals who must withstand that sort of scrutiny.

“In medicine, when a doctor makes a diagnosis and prescribes treatment for his patient, no other doctor is present to object to the diagnosis and advise the patient that the other doctor is completely off-base,” the column says.

Dad’s piece – written to practicing attorneys in the state – addresses the stress lawyers face and, he challenges them to manage the rigors of work with the blessings of the spouse and children at home.

Many years ago, an editor gave me some good advice about column writing: Whenever possible, use your columns to educate readers about your newspaper.

I wouldn’t dare argue, publicly, with my Dad about who has most stressful job. (I learned many years ago that the children of attorneys don’t win many “disputes.”) In the spirit of educating our readers, though, maybe you’d enjoy a few of the written comments we received this week – most of which weren’t signed.

One writer told me that the design of our paper is getting worse by the day.

“It looks like some of the articles are being squeezed in, and the print is a lot smaller…,” the person wrote. “I know you have to advertise, but it looks like that is taking over the paper.”

That comment, as a whole, was the nicest thing we heard all week. The others got better by the day.

“Recently, your coverage of Perry County has been less than desirable…,” wrote another person. “Quite frankly, most of us have completely lost interest in your paper.”

Point taken. Then again, I received that letter one day before someone else had the following, paraphrased advice for The Times.

According to an apparent Demopolis reader, he didn’t care who “flushed the toilet” in Greene or Perry or Hale or Sumter counties. He said the paper today is much worse than it was a year ago.

Another less-than-joyful soul wrote to tell us that, among other things, the photos with our columns are not very attractive. (I promise. This stuff is too good to make up.)

I don’t know whether my job is any more stressful than Dad’s and, largely, it really doesn’t matter. Work wasn’t created to relieve tension, as far as I can tell.

What I have realized, however, is that our staff at The Times does the best job it can. To answer the complaint about newspaper design, we’re currently training new people who, one day, will produce the best looking paper in the state. (As a side note, our newspaper was honored with a first-place award in newspaper design by the Alabama Press Association last year. We’ll get back there again.)

As for the Perry County coverage, we’ve hired a new reporter who now lives in Marion. He’ll cover Perry and Hale counties for us, and I hope we get back to doing a better job publishing the news of your community.

Then again, there are readers here in Demopolis who don’t care about your Perry County water bill. To that person, I can promise that our newspaper will continue to be the leader in news coverage for this city. No one, in my opinion, comes close now, and we’ll make sure it stays that way.

As for the staff pictures we take, there’s a media joke that might be apropos: Some of the most talented journalists work in the radio business rather than in TV. The reason? They have a “face for radio.” We’re just newspaper people, not models.

Attorneys always have an equal and competent attorney arguing the other side. They also answer to a judge or jury. When it’s over, an attorney either wins (and collects a reward) or loses and moves on to the next case.

Each day, my staff at The Times answers to 3,000 judges. When our print is too small, or when we misspell someone’s name (as I did this week), or when we try to become a regional paper, our judges loudly proclaim our guilt.

When we get a story right or make a difference in the community, our only reward comes internally.

We’re working hard to produce the best small daily newspaper in the Southeast. Sure, we make mistakes every single day (and we appreciate those who call our hand). In the long run, I believe those mistakes will be diminished by the progress we continue to promote in this region.