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Truth lies in the details

NewsWire Editorial

About a year ago Dottie and I were lucky enough to be basking in Maui sunshine. It felt like a light that could illuminate your insides, a part of us all warm and open from nights of coconut drinks and days with ample naps. That must have been why one piece of advice from the Hawaiian Islands got so deep inside me. “Tell the truth — there’s less to remember,” said the tank top that I took home to Texas.

I’m writing this while wearing that shirt, but the message is locked close to my heart. It’s a big part of my life as a newsman, and of Dottie’s life as a publisher. Being honest feels clean, like that first shower we took after climbing and descending nearly a mile up and down Emory Peak in Big Bend this month.

It’s especially hard to stick to being honest when you’re trying to impress somebody. This is one of the things that makes marketing such a challenge to the soul, and perhaps what has made Hewlett-Packard’s marketing seem soft-headed to the faithful HP 3000 customer. Being honest is important to the HP Way, whether you’re talking about version 1.0 or the new HP Way 2.0.

Being honest is also important in the news business, which is the only one I’ve ever been in during my adult life. I began this work on a small community newspaper in the county seat of Burnet, Texas. There on the square I helped write and edit a weekly paper where you had to tell the truth, about accidents and arson and close elections and bank robberies. Real people you wrote about were just minutes away from that little storefront — and if you got it wrong, they were likely to show up at your office mad as hell.

On that little town square as a young journalist I learned some hard lessons about being honest. How sometimes it doesn’t make some people happy. I learned lessons about “going off half-cocked,” as my crusty editor used to say when I turn in a story full of beans, but short of details. And I learned that when trouble comes from the law, you get the facts right and get them out as fast as you can — because that’s when people are counting on you the most.

That’s why working on the stories that HP told us we broke first about the used hardware crackdown has been such an energizing experience. I could hear that old editor barking, chewing on his cigar with the little portable Smith-Corona typewriter at his knees, the one that he used to cover the Nurnberg trials for the Stars and Stripes: “Get it right. Don’t write everything people tell you. Saying it’s so doesn’t make it true.”

That’s why I smiled in bemusement when I saw a headline in an HP publication that doesn’t focus on the 3000 about the crackdown — a headline that included the word “Busts” even though nobody had been arrested yet. There were other details overlooked in that April story, things glossed over in the heat of emotion over big trouble, written under an FBI shield blazing on a Web site. There were even claims of having an exclusive story.

While we often break news first about the HP 3000, we’ve never had to brag we were doing so. “Bad form,” as Captain Hook said while leaping to his end with the crocodiles. Our paying subscribers learned about the crackdown details online, long before anybody else. It’s one of the benefits of being a paid reader.

It’s pretty easy to skip the details and puff up your chest when there’s big trouble, because there’s all the drama everyone wants to read about. And it’s especially tempting to try and say you heard about trouble first, because that’s supposed to impress people.

I just remember my editor Big Jim when I see things like that. “Nobody cares who got it first,” he’d say when we’d scoop our competition down the street. “But they’ll remember who got it right.”

There’s much more to the used hardware broker crackdown than people can print. There’s people in this story who are going to be ruined, simply because they worked for the wrong company. There are others who, if they’re found guilty, deserve whatever penance the law dishes out. Respecting the difference, and waiting to see what’s proven, is fair.

This is a story that has roots as strong and deep as the 3000 community itself. I’ve had people whispering in my ear about this since Christmas, and I could write only a fraction of what I’d heard. That’s because a journalist has to be honest and operate with integrity, or he’s worth nothing. Fair is what earns respect, not first.

And a newsman has to care about the details, because that’s where the truth can be found. There is a difference between an allegation and a fact. A civil lawsuit is not a criminal action; only the latter can result in prison. And the zeal of persecution can look like prosecution. The former is all about prejudice. The latter is all about fairness and honesty.

Last month I wrote at length about how stealing something because you disliked the price was wrong. I also included thoughts about how HP brought on this banditry by ignoring the value of the HP 3000. That idea was not easy to voice, because we admire the managers in the HP 3000 division. But we had to say it, because I’d heard it from others I respect, and they had details.

Claiming you’ve got an exclusive story when you don’t is not much different from claiming you’ve got a legal 3000 license when you don’t. They’re both falsehoods. Where they differ is that a customer or broker can tell such an untruth and not ruin their integrity. When a journalist bends the truth, well, as Big Jim would say, “You can write your fiction on your own time.”

Later on in the week after seeing that bad form, I called HP and listened to its presentation about the newest HP 3000 products. I could hear a product manager complaining as I entered the conference call, talking about not wanting me to “get into the weeds.” It’s a phrase that some marketing professionals like to use, describing details they don’t consider important to their message. We love the 3000, but we print details in our news stories, not messages. In the next 45 minutes, I did my best to drive that manager into the weeds. We need to get the details other journalists don’t have time to hear — or pages to put them on. That’s what focusing on the 3000 demands, but it brings rewards you expect as our paid readers.

These details about running the NewsWire might seem unimportant to some, the people who expect facts they can use. But understanding integrity is useful. Every ray of light must be powered by some celestial body, a heart of spirit beating behind the body of truth. Our readers and HP’s 3000 customers thrive on details. The truth at the center of details feeds trust, something as essential to integrity as to a successful relationship.

— Ron Seybold
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Ron Seybold, Editor In Chief

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