As a teenager I worked in a small deli my dad owned with my uncle. We served great food at good prices. That was all it took to make our customers happy. If someone complained that the potato salad had turned, dad gave him a fresh container or his money back.
It is more difficult to satisfy customers in the news business. When people express unhappiness, you can't satisfy them by handing them back the quarters they spent on the newspaper that day. You can't produce a smile with a fresh issue and a pickle.
A good reporter will cringe at widespread praise for a story; if everyone liked it, she did something wrong. Instead, she earns credibility when the story rankles, in different ways, just about everyone who reads it.
Last week I saw two forms of protest against newspapers in this area. Both are instructive. In the North Coast Journal, 10-year-old Ciara A. Cheli-Colando, wrote a letter to the editor to protest my take on public radio in my last column. I had suggested that KHSU should kill shows like A Prairie Home Companion, Thistle and Shamrock and folk music programs that cater to the gray and the bald, and instead turn over the mics to those with heads full of pink hair.
Ciara wanted to remind me that everyone counts. "The reason folk shows have been running on KHSU for 40 years is because people have been requesting them for 40 years," she said. She also likes Thistle and Shamrock. So there.
Then my former student Jason Robo wrote to announce a boycott against the Arcata Eye for, among other things, bringing national attention to Arcata on the issue of marijuana and grow houses. He argues that Hoover and the Eye "threaten the existence of our local culture so by this logic his 'newspaper' should have no right to exist."
For the record, I like protests. I like anti-war protests and teabag protests. I like when gay people protest against discrimination and homophobia and when preachers protest against gay people. Demonstrations of protest are the First Amendment in action.
Back in 1644, John Milton argued that censorship is short-sighted if you believe in the power of truth. He wrote: "... so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing."
It'll be at least 10 years before any college professor forces Ciara Cheli-Colando to read Milton's treatise, but she already understands its essence: You fight media you disagree with with more media. Just about two years ago, I argued that a boycott of the Eureka Reporter reflected backwards thinking. Instead, I suggested, protest with letters so that then-owner Rob Arkley would spend his money distributing your thoughts. Meanwhile, Robo, who passed both beginning reporting and the newspaper workshop at HSU, needs to brush up on some libertarian philosophy. The First Amendment gives the Eye the right to exist.
A boycott is a weapon consumers can use to fight bad business practice. But in countering expression, starting a boycott of a newspaper is like using a gun when a raised fist will do.
Last month I wrote about a trip I took out west through Navajo country. I came west because a threatened newspaper boycott led me to quit my first newspaper job. Some car dealers in Carbondale, Ill., protested the use of the terms "used car dealer" and "lemon" as derogatory expressions in a sports column about the St. Louis Cardinals. The publisher responded with a 14-inch front-page apology to car dealers and suspended the sports writer and editor. The boycott threat seemed silly even then but it terrified the publisher. It was also counterproductive. News that I quit the paper in protest made Bob Greene's nationally syndicated column. The national magazine Harper's magazine reprinted the entire apology under the headline "Would you buy a used newspaper from this man?"
More effective was a campaign against an article I wrote at the Desert Sun in Palm Springs. For free tickets to a Julio Iglesias concert at a local golf resort, I agreed to write a review. The Latin love singer showed up two hours late. The crowd of rich octogenarians was particularly cantankerous because the potato salad had run out. But by the end of the concert, Iglesias had the audience. They loved him. I made the mistake of overplaying the applause over the tardiness. The paper received more angry letters to my review than it did for any other article printed in the three years I worked there. My editor forced me to write a suck-up piece. This time I kept my job.
Back when I served pastrami sandwiches, running a small business was a precarious living. There was a supermarket across the street our customers could go to if they didn't like our food or service. Newspapers had it easy. The Desert Sun and the Southern Illinoisan were the only media game in their respective regions. Advertisers really had no place else to go. But these days, newspapers are in as precarious a situation as the mom and pop. Readers leave newspapers even without boycotts in place. And advertisers follow.
Actually, I think one reason newspapers are in the state they are in is because they fail to spark outrage. Under corporate consolidation they grew mushy. Take the Times-Standard. It inconsistently publishes editorials and when it does, it tends to praise community action rather than warn against it or call for it. Readers flock to the more passionate arguments they find on the Internet for free.
I have been a news writer for 20 years, and only now that I rankled 10-year-old Ciara Cheli-Colando enough to get her to write a letter to the editor do I feel I've done my job. By the way, Ciara, have I told you that I consider Harry Potter children's trash?
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism at Humboldt State University. She personally boycotts all movies that have only one female character, beer from Colorado and anything from the state of Florida.