Lessons learned in the newsroom By BRUCE SYMES

opinions

April 26, 2013 - 12:00 AM

By BRUCE SYMES
“Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”
I laughed out loud, probably rolled my eyes a little, when I saw the coffee mug with that wording on my boss’s desk. It was Emerson’s way of professing a belief he held strongly for all of his professional life in a tongue-in-cheek way.
I’d been working at the Register for a couple years at the time, and I was starting to realize how lucky I was to have Emerson Lynn as my mentor. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at some of the things I had to learn the hard way as a green reporter. (I was already three or four years out of college at that point, but some of us take longer to ripen than others.) Emerson patiently took the time to gently guide me along the tricky path of community journalism. When I stubbed my toe, he would calmly teach, and re-teach, me the values of sensibility and sensitivity.
He had a patriarchal quality that led our Register family through many controversies — to which the nature of our business lent itself at times — and a few personal tragedies with those same qualities: calmness, sensibility, sensitivity. At the core was love for his professional family, and it could be seen for his community, as well.
He always carried out his responsibility as journalist, to report the news whether good or bad, but it struck me as long as I worked for him that there was no greater cheerleader in town than Emerson. Even when he was criticizing or scolding on the editorial page, he did it with the hope of positive change or correction, not out of spite or ill will. He performed his role as editorial writer in a serious manner, always researching and making phone calls and pulling from years of personal experience and observation to get the facts and never shooting from the hip. How often was he in the office well past “closing time” or on weekends making sure the Register’s reputation as one of the best small-town newspapers was maintained?
That’s why the words on that coffee mug were so appropriate. Emerson had something to say about a lot of things, and they were usually pretty smart things. They always were sincere. He kept his opinions to the editorial page, and he made sure we underlings didn’t leak subjectivity onto the news pages, either. But the editorial, a primary vertebrae in the spine of American journalism, was honored and employed with reverence on his part.
It was a good lesson in responsibility and integrity for me.  I hope that readers who sometimes disagreed with him in his editorials — count me among them —respected his right to write them. I don’t think he necessarily was troubled when his views weren’t shared by some. There’s a part of most journalists that enjoy a good argument and provoking deep thought.
That brings me to another fond memory of Emerson: He loved the community’s participation in the Opinion page and wished there were more letters written by readers for publication. Remember the experiment with SOUND OFF!? Oh my goodness! Well, that was an attempt to get more involvement in public discourse.
My association with Emerson was through work, but I benefited from his other loves for Iola, too. We all did, because we all are better for having the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, which he supported with his time and money, the economic and industrial efforts in which he was a part, and the countless other community assets that carry his mark.
I’ll miss Emerson, and it won’t be the first time. I missed sitting just feet away from him on a daily basis when he moved upstairs at the newspaper building and handed the Register’s reins over to his daughter, Susan. I missed him a second time when I left the profession and moved to a job at the college. Hopefully, some of the lessons he taught me come through to my students, in a sensible and sensitive manner.
Emerson has left us an invaluable legacy in the family-owned, quality newspaper our area enjoys. I know it’s something we could take for granted, but we shouldn’t. If its voice was ever silenced by apathy and lack of support, we’d greatly miss the opportunity to voice our thoughts, and agree or disagree with the Register’s views, on things that are happening around us.
Everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion. My mom taught me that first. Emerson showed me the importance of what it means, in theory and in practice.
 Bruce Symes is former wire editor of the Register.

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