Great journalism is what our members do
Hetzel looks back, predicts battles ahead in journalism, politics
(Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of outgoing ONMA Executive Director Dennis Hetzel’s remarks to the ONMA convention as he prepares to depart the position at the end of March after more than eight years.)
By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
I’ve always viewed this job as a rare opportunity to give back and apply what I’ve learned about this business. It has been a passion and a calling since I first started writing about prep sports for 20 cents an inch when I was a high school student in the suburbs of Chicago.
It has been an honor to come to work for the past eight years alongside the talented and dedicated members of our staff. The obligation to do something every day that helps our members and, by extension, their communities is something we take very seriously. There are a few things I wish I’d known sooner or figured out faster, but that’s on me.
As I look back over the past eight years, particularly involving our dealings with politicians, several headlines come to mind and perhaps a bit of advice.
First, thank goodness we still have public notices in printed newspapers where they belong. We faced a crisis in 2011 and the modest compromises we made were essential. A few years later we were able to make the ONMA website, PublicNoticesOhio.com, the official website for notices across the state. All of you upload notices at no additional charge to the advertiser. I think this has been a huge help as other states faced measures to put notices only on government websites. Last spring, however, we had to deal with a bill to remove the second publication of delinquent tax notices. We mobilized, and the bill didn’t make it far, but you can expect to see it again and more bills along these lines.
We all must be proactive when it comes to public notices and be conversant on the topic. I urge everyone to read the pamphlet, “Public Notice: An American Tradition,” that we handed out at registration. Remind your legislators why it makes sense to continue. Provide great service to your government advertisers. Meanwhile, I believe our industry must prepare for a day when the digital notice becomes as important or more important than the print notice. The argument for print notices is still strong, but it may not be true at some point in the future.
We spend a lot of time lobbying on business issues, even some that are a little obscure, because our industry is no longer in a position where even small negative changes in expense or revenue are easily shrugged aside. It’s no secret that the traditional business model of our industry is badly broken. Something I often tell legislators is that we aren’t looking for special treatment but if they believe in the importance of good local, community journalism, don’t make our jobs harder by passing laws that increase our expenses or attack our revenue base as we try to figure out the future. They’ve been receptive. Most of them understand that the noise in Washington isn’t the same thing as local journalism in Ohio. I think this approach has helped us defeat efforts such as the one Gov. Kasich mounted early in his tenure to expand the sales tax to advertising. We all know that would have been devastating.
On the federal level, many of you engaged with us in the past year to defeat the newsprint tariffs, and that victory is good news, but lasting damage was done. Perhaps the greatest threat to our business is the unique challenge posed by the duopoly of Facebook and Google, with Amazon not far behind, and their control of digital advertising. They throw crumbs to us while profiting off our content. I urge you to stand firmly with the News Media Alliance in that battle and push hard on our senators and members of Congress to support us.
The other piece of our lobbying efforts involves our open government work. One of the most important things we have going for us is the respect we’ve earned at the Statehouse as the most credible, knowledgeable guardians of the state’s sunshine laws.
Beyond the work we do on bills we like, it’s sometimes even more important to make bills we don’t like “suck less.” A good example last year was House Bill 8, which would have blocked access to victim information in school-bus accidents. We obtained an amendment at the end of the legislative process to provide access to journalists.
I’m particularly proud of our efforts, working with then-Senate President and now State Auditor Keith Faber, to pass an outstanding public records appeals process. Today, for $25 and an online form, you can appeal a denial of an open records request without having to hire a lawyer and go to court. One of our goals for the coming legislative session is to see if this can be expanded to open meetings violations, and we already have legislative interest.
There’s a new law going into effect in April that governs access to dash camera and body camera recordings by law enforcement. Please monitor this and let us know when you run into problems. Our hope is that it will unfold as one of the best laws of its kind in the country. We decided to be proactive more than three years ago when it was obvious the Legislature would address body cameras. The alternative would’ve been what we’ve seen in some other states – closed records released at the discretion of the chief or the sheriff.
Among our other goals for the next two years is, of course, to stay diligent on public notice and business issues. We’ve also taken the lead for the Ohio Citizen Participation Act, which outside groups have hailed as potentially a model anti-SLAPP law if it passes. As many other states have done, Ohio would have an expedited court process to dispose of libel and defamation actions filed simply because you exercised your First Amendment rights.
Something else that’s important happened in the past few years, and it needs to continue. We’ve seen quite a remarkable turnaround by the Ohio Supreme Court, which had a well-deserved reputation for issuing awful open-government decisions. Starting around 2012, we put a microscope on the court’s rulings and drew public attention to what was happening. I’m convinced that the cases taken up by our Ohio Coalition for Open Government, the skilled attorneys we’ve used and the extra scrutiny are key factors in the positive changes we’ve seen. For example, the court ruled about two years ago that a school board can’t use email to dodge open meetings requirements. That decision not only rippled across the state, it has been cited across the country. OCOG’s involvement made that ruling possible.
To do all this work along with the many other services we provide, particularly our legal hotline and training programs, ONMA must be financially strong. We also take seriously our obligation to keep our dues affordable. The last eight years have been a wild ride for us as well as you. A few years ago, AdOhio and, by extension, our entire organization, faced a severe financial crisis. Through a variety of efforts including expense cuts and changes in our focus, we’ve turned that around. In 2018, we had a second consecutive year of a return to profitability. Our AdOhio team sent roughly $1.5 million back to our members in ad sales and had profits to support the parent association.
Let me close with an example that underscores why the ONMA remains dedicated to helping you succeed.
Ted Decker is a local reporter and columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, and I want to describe one of his recent columns.
As many of you know, The Dispatch has been extensively covering the horrific story of a local doctor accused of ordering excessive, sometimes-fatal doses of painkillers to at least 34 patients in the Mount Carmel health system
In looking at the life story of Dr. William Husel, Decker did what journalists have done for decades. He saw something odd, got curious and asked questions.
The oddity was what you might call a resume gap. Decker wondering why Husel graduated two years later from college than you would have expected. He asked, “What happened during those two years?”
What Decker learned was jarring. Husel and another young man built a pipe bomb in a dorm room and used it to blow up a trash can on campus at Wheeling Jesuit College. Federal investigators said Husel tried to frame someone else for doing it. He ultimately pled guilty and did six months in a federal prison.
My point here isn’t that Decker got a helluva good scoop. My point is how he reported the story. Decker started by poking around in PACER, the federal courts records system, just to see if something popped up. He found the criminal case that was 23 years old. But he didn’t stop there. He made an extensive effort to ensure that they had the right William Husel. They confirmed addresses, they double-checked birth dates on records. The Dispatch even examined auditor records in Cuyahoga County, where Husel had lived.
When Decker first told his editors that he was confident that he had the story nailed, Editor Alan Miller held the story longer for further vetting – just to be sure they had it right. That was more important than having it first, although it turned out they did.
So, here is part of what Decker wrote in his column to educate readers on what it takes to do a story like that: “This scrutiny and sleuthing is the foundation of every day’s paper. Hours of work might result in a single paragraph, or a decision that there is no story at all.” Then, at the end of the column, he wrote this: “I worry about the price communities will pay as newsrooms shrink. I worry about old court cases undiscovered, politicians unchallenged and questions unasked. I worry about a populace uninformed.”
One of the great illusions since the Internet began to dominate our lives is that somehow there would be these posses of “citizen journalists,” working for free, covering local news at a good-enough level of credibility and timeliness.
Guess what? Ohio still needs journalists like Theodore Decker, and thank goodness we still have them.
This is what our members do, and you do it in Ohio every day. We are most assuredly NOT enemies of the people. We are dedicated at the ONMA to the role we play to help you do this work, and I know that dedication will continue under Monica Nieporte.
Thank you again for this opportunity of a lifetime and the honor of working for you.