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A reader recently called the office and asked a member of the editorial staff why social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have been shielded from lawsuits over the content users post on their platforms, while newspaper editors usually take extra precautions when publishing letters to the editor.

Social media platforms have been covered by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, as they are not considered moderators of content provided by their users, but distributors. The same act protects distributors of books, magazines and newspapers.

It is a law that has become controversial, as The New York Times has pointed out, since it also covers websites that propagate hate speech. Websites can effectively set their own rules for what is and what is not allowed.

However, regarding newspapers, readers will often find that letters to the editor pages in many publications such as ours stress that the opinions of columnists and letter writers are their own. They do not speak for the newspaper. We also edit letters for length, libel, style and good taste,  and the editorial department vets them to ensure factual accuracy. While social media companies and internet service providers are protected under Section 230, newspapers, radio and television stations are held to a higher standard, allegedly due to their ability to moderate content and maintain editorial control.

At the same time, more social media sites are expressly moderating people’s posts. Facebook recently cited that it’s detecting and removing most hate speech before anyone sees it. If the argument was these sites didn’t have the capacity to moderate all its content, it is in the strange spot of arguing at the same time that it effectively can.

While outside content across the worldwide web is innumerable and almost impossible to keep track of, with a newspaper the content can be reviewed by an editor. Although most newspapers, including ours, are open to printing readers’ opinions no matter what side of the political aisle a person may take, as a privately owned business we have the option to decline to publish anything that comes across our desks. Based on our standard of ethics, letters can be declined if they include racist comments or defamatory statements — such as accusing a person of a crime, a breach of ethics or professional dishonesty. Newspapers can potentially bear the responsibility of being held accountable under libel laws if a letter claims something about a person that is known to be false or should have been known by the editorial staff. Of course, it’s hard to litigate libel in New York state, as one has to prove the defamation was made with actual malice.

Local newspapers like ours don’t always have the luxury of having numerous letters to choose from and, being familiar with the different viewpoints of community members, we have the right to decide not to publish letters that express extreme views. Still, we do our best to provide an outlet where everyone feels they can express their opinions and exercise their freedom of speech. However, unlike most posts on social media, we also understand the importance of protecting our community members as best as we can from hearsay.

Regarding Section 230, it may be time to hold social media accountable for the content that pops up in a person’s newsfeed. Let’s not forget which accounts have been suspended by Twitter or those who have been thrown in “Facebook jail.” It seems as if the technology is out there to decipher false claims and what is otherwise hate speech. The fact that these corporations seem to want autonomy while displaying they have the capacity to monitor their users’ messaging is untenable — the general political divisiveness and the proliferation of so much mistruth are reasons enough that laws need to change.

Considering how many rely on social media for information, it may be time for these platforms to step up to the plate and verify what their consumers read or risk government reform.

Photo by David Ackerman

When The New York Times recently published an editorial titled “Don’t Cancel That Newspaper Subscription,” it caught our attention. Not just because of the subject matter — anything about the general decline of local newspapers is, of course, something we’re very concerned about — but because of the struggles each reporter and editor faces while trying to do their jobs.

The beginning of the editorial tells the story of John Seigenthaler, initially a young reporter with The Tennessean who saved the life of a man he was interviewing back in the 1950s. Seigenthaler went on to become editor and then publisher for the local paper and was at the forefront of civil rights coverage in the heart of the segregated South. However, the piece is not a love letter to the local papers of the 20th century; it’s a cry for help for the publications of today.

The editorial touches on how newspapers and their newsrooms have become smaller over time, even before the coronavirus pandemic diminished the amount of advertising, the main source of revenue papers rely on. Over the years, local publications have been suffering as more and more readers take to the internet to get their daily or weekly dose of news. It also doesn’t help that the false moniker of “fake news” is thrown around by too many without a care for the consequences such an impetuous statement can create.

According to the editorial, newsrooms across the country lost half their journalists between 2008-19. Citing a recent Business Insider article, the writer Margaret Renkl, said “a staggering” 7,800 journalists lost their jobs in 2019.

The writer goes on to tell the story of how The Tennessean recently ran an ad that many found appalling and racist, but she urged people not to cancel their subscriptions. She not only cited how the publisher quickly tried to rectify the situation by pulling it from future editions and firing the sales manager that approved it, but she pointed out many other things, too. Despite the extreme lack of judgment in placing the ad, even with a shortage of journalists due to cutbacks over the years, the paper still covers and publishes a variety of topics that show it is still doing everything in its power to maintain a balanced and reputable publication.

We get this. There have been times when some may not have been pleased with an article, letter or editorial in our newspapers. That is perfectly fine, and we invite reasoned criticism from all in our letters to the editor. But as Renkl wrote in her editorial, “As the ‘first rough draft of history’ journalism will always be prone to mistakes.” We, perhaps beyond any other industry, not only invite justified review of our papers, but we also actively try to improve, working many, many hours to try to get the story of local happenings. We cannot be everywhere and cover everything, but we do our best.

Canceling your subscription to a newspaper only hastens the death of journalism. We’ve written it before on this page, and we’ll put it out there again: If newspapers and journalists didn’t exist, who would tell you what leaders are up to? Who would be there to challenge their responses when something doesn’t sound quite right? And this is even more important with our local leaders, especially as more news networks focus on the national side of our society.

Without local papers, where would readers go to find out what fun activities are going on right in their own town? Who would celebrate the academic and athletic achievements of our local students?

Unfortunately, the days of local newsrooms brimming over with editors and reporters, who could run out and cover every incident in town, may be over, but pulling out a newspaper from the mailbox or picking one up on the newsstand doesn’t need to end.

Let’s work together to keep local journalism alive. With each subscription, just like with each ad, we are empowered to continue and enabled to cover more of our communities’ activities for the benefit of all.

TBR News Media temporarily closes its offices to the public starting March 19.

At TBR News Media we remain committed in our responsibility to our communities.

That’s why in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and following the advice of health experts, until further notice our office will be closed to the public.

Our employees will be working from home as much as possible. As always, we will be checking our voicemails and emails and answering those messages. So, of course, keep on writing and calling. 

If you do see us out in the community, just as we have been doing for more than a week, we won’t be shaking hands and such, but all of us are more than happy to offer you an elbow to bump.

It’s important for each and every one of us in the office to do our best to stay healthy, as we need to be here to give you the news from the local perspective, and if we do run into you, that we don’t pass on anything to you.

When it comes to reporting the news, it will be business as usual. You will see our papers in your mailbox and local newsstands, and our website will be updated with the most recent news related to the COVID-19 situation in between editions.

We will also keep in touch with elected officials, local hospitals, school districts, organizations and more to bring you the most accurate news possible.

This is all unprecedented territory for all of us. However, modern technology will help us get the job done.

For example, just the other day Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) held an update on the county’s coronavirus response on a conference call with local journalists. With not only telephones, but FaceTime, Skype, and for those who are busy, emails, we will ask questions and track down answers.

As for our office outside the editorial department, our employees will stay connected through text messages, emails and Google Hangouts.

Speaking of joining forces, as always, readers are welcome to send in photos of anything interesting they see during their daily lives around our coverage area, whether it’s a house fire, car incident, wildlife at play or a beautiful sunset.

We would love to hear how everyone is doing during this time of temporary closures. Let’s hear your perspective, whether you’re a parent trying to balance work from home while monitoring your children’s studies, or a student trying to figure out what to do during this time outside of school buildings. Send us 400 words or less, and you may see your words on the Letters to the Editor page. Have more to say? We may just print it as a perspective piece in our news section.

We encourage our readers to keep up on the news, look for those pieces that attribute information to respected health organizations or experts — and heed their advice. That’s not to say there’s a need to overdo it and become panicked. Take the time to read respected and trusted sources, and don’t trust everything on Facebook as there are numerous rumors and falsities going around. Remember, always look toward trusted sources and fact-checking websites to get to the bottom of such rumors.

As we have been for more than 40 years, we will be here for our readers now and in the future.

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Photo from Sweetbriar Nature Center

Sweetbriar Nature Center, 62 Eckernkamp Drive, Smithtown is in need of old newspapers to line the enclosures for the wild animals they are rehabilitating. They can’t use the ads or the shiny stuff, but the rest of the paper would be greatly appreciated. The New York Times is their favorite sized paper but any newspaper will do. For more information or to schedule a drop off, call 631-979-6344.

Photo by David Ackerman

There’s something real about a newspaper, and it goes beyond the ink and page, beyond the action of picking one up at the drugstore or plucking it from the mailbox. 

We who work at TBR News Media imbue the paper, the one you hold in your hands right now, with our labor. If you could see us at our work, you would know just how hard and long we work to provide the community with as much local content as we can. Truly, the paper is alive.

While we editors and reporters are active in the community every day, we know the lives of the people behind the paper are not front and center.

Behind each of those bylines you might read in the paper today is a person researching, interviewing and eventually rapidly typing each deliberated word hunched over a desk. Each picture is edited and placed within the blocks of text. The ads are crafted by graphic designers spending hours arranging each one. We’re hardly some sort of news assembly line, working out of some monolithic New York City skyscraper. Our tiny, two-story office is located right here on the North Shore, blending into the surrounding rustic buildings of Setauket.

This past weekend, a team from TBR News Media traveled up to Albany for the annual New York Press Association convention. Hundreds of reporters, editors and publishers from papers from across the state gather for this annual event in a single location. 

Listening to the voices of the people at other papers during this event can be both disheartening and encouraging. Advertising dollars are down; and, while research from the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement shows journalists rate themselves high in credibility, accuracy and trustworthiness, the public has a much lower opinion. 

“Fake news” has become a common phrase, one that was initially used for the express purpose of distorting facts during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s now regularly used to denigrate a pillar of our democracy, which concerns us. It’s important for people to understand the importance of our profession to a healthy democracy. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable is an expression often used to describe the role of the newspaper. We aim to hold people in power accountable and report on government operations, so citizens become better informed voters. We take this role very seriously. 

A good chunk of our staff lives within our coverage areas along Long Island’s North Shore. We carefully report on the community because we are a part of that community. We wish to see it thrive because we ourselves care about what should happen to our neighbors and the place in which we all live.

What does that mean for you, the person holding the paper? Know that we appreciate you. You’re keeping the paper alive.

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Newspaper publishers, editors and staff members across the country — especially weeklies operating on tight budgets — are breathing sighs of relief.

Last week the United States International Trade Commission overturned President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Canadian newsprint, and we couldn’t be happier. The tariffs that the U.S. began charging this year caused many newspapers in the country to cut staff or paper sizes — in some cases both — to absorb the rise in newsprint costs. Other publications closed their doors as the additional expense was the breaking point for many outlets, making it impossible to continue operating in an environment already riddled with challenges in a changing industry.

The overturning of this tariff, besides creating a sigh of relief, has demonstrated the balance of power in our country at work.

Many have expressed fear about how much power a president may have or think he has, but our forefathers were visionaries. Declaring their independence from England, they knew a monarchy wouldn’t work in the U.S. All levels of government, from federal down to local, are designed with checks and balances in place in the form of executive, legislative and judicial branches. The president may want something to happen — in this case to impose a tariff — but that doesn’t mean that senators, congressmen, judges and federal agencies have to agree with him. And if they don’t, they have the power to make sure that a bill or an edict doesn’t go forward or remain in place.

Speaking of our Founding Fathers, they ensured the U.S. Constitution contained an amendment to aid in protection of the free press. It was written to allow journalists to fairly report on events and happenings without government interference. This enables reporters the freedom and ability to keep a close eye on what elected officials are up to.

Imagine if weekly, in most cases local, newspapers needed to continue to absorb the newsprint tariff. We presume many more would suffer, and as each one folded, regional and national outlets would be left to try to pick up the slack jumping into areas local news reporters know inside and out. Or worse: No one would pick up the slack.

If the press runs into an issue like this again — government decisions directly impacting our ability to do our jobs effectively — we as an industry have shown there is strength in numbers. In a show of unity, Aug. 16, hundreds of papers in the U.S. published similar
editorials voicing displeasure over the president’s disrespectful treatment of members of the press dating back to his campaign. The goal was to make it clear that the press wasn’t the enemy of the people.

As your local press, we are thrilled to continue to serve you in the years to come.