Branding Newspaper management

Newspaper mottoes and slogans: Helping to brand your editorial product

Does your newspaper have a motto? Or a slogan? Do you know the difference?

Mottoes, slogans and marketing pitches were common in the days when most big newspapers had competition, as they tried to give themselves a distinguishing character. As the big newspaper markets became monopolized, there was less need for them, but now, when every information source competes for audience with every other source, even in small towns, slogans and mottoes are worth reviving, and some papers are doing it.

The Washington Post’s nameplate got an underline on Feb.: the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” That’s the most prominent example of newspapers adding a promotional explanation of what they do or what they stand for. Two papers from Warren Buffett’s BH Media Group have similar slogans: The Bristol Herald Courier says it offers “Truth. Accuracy. Fairness” and the Omaha World-Herald says it is “Real. Fair. Accurate.”

Such slogans or mottoes are needed at a time when the very idea of independent, professional journalism is under attack from the highest levels of government and partisan media. Print circulation is down, but newspapers still have broad audiences and provide most of the accountability journalism that the writers of the First Amendment had in mind. Slogans and mottoes can not only remind the public of newspapers’ importance, but remind newspaper staff of ideals and principles they should follow.

Executive Editor Marty Baron’s “first principle” for the Post staff is “Tell the truth as nearly as it may be ascertained.” He said the paper started working on a slogan before the last election, “trying to come up with some words that would capture the essence of our mission in a way that you might even put it on a T-shirt. We had a lot of ideas and it was all over the place.” The choice was made by new owner Jeff Bezos; Baron told me he thought the line was “a little dark.” Yes, but it displays nicely in the reverse type the Post uses on its mobile site. The line had been used by Bob Woodward, the Post associate editor who as a reporter with Carl Bernstein broke open the Watergate scandal.

What’s the difference?  The Post’s slogan brought to mind other newspaper mottoes or slogans, many at rural or community newspapers, and I wrote about it on The Rural Blog recently. The blog post is at It linked to an explanation of the difference between a motto and a slogan; here’s a capsule version:

A motto contains a belief or an ideal that can serve as a guiding principle and the identity of a newspaper. The Amarillo Globe-News still uses a saying coined by publisher Gene Howe, who died in 1952: “A newspaper may be forgiven for lack of wisdom, but never for lack of courage.”

Slogans can serve the same purpose, but tend to be simpler and catchier, and used more as marketing tools. The best are those that serve not only as a slogan for the public, but a motto, perhaps implicit, for the staff. One of my favorites is used by The Blackshear Times, a Georgia weekly: “Liked by many, cussed by some, read by them all.”

Some slogans or mottoes are implicit, as in the simple warning of hard-nosed editorial policy at the Aspen (Colo.) Daily News: “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.”

Whether you call it a motto or a slogan matters less than having a line that accurately describes your newspaper. The most common slogans for rural papers are like the one used by the Mason Valley News in Nevada: “The only newspaper in the world that gives a damn about Yerington.” It’s a natural; most newspapers’ reason for existence is to publish news of their locality, and in most cases they own that franchise. The Greene County Democrat in Alabama, which competes with the Greene County Independent, puts it more subtly: “Serving Greene County Like No Other Newspaper.”

Some mottoes are blunt and simple, like that of The Star in Johannesburg, South Africa: “Tell it like it is.” Another conveys the same principle, but in more friendly, flowery fashion. It was written by British poet and politician Lord Byron (1788-1824): “Without or with offense to friends or foes, we sketch your world exactly as it goes.” Andrew Jackson Norfleet adopted it when he founded The Times Journal in Russell Springs, Ky., in 1949. The weekly still posts it on its editorial page.

Another idea: Speaking of editorial pages, that’s where newspapers can best explain who they are, even if they don’t have regular editorials.

If I were a newspaper editor again, my paper’s home page would have a button called “How We Work,” taking readers to a policy statement on the editorial page, explaining our editorial philosophy, policies such as correcting errors and separating news from opinion, a call for readers to let us know when we fall short, and a link to The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, with a few examples, such as:

Our first obligation is to the truth, not in an absolute, philosophical or scientific sense, but “the truths by which we can operate on a day-to-day basis;” and the essence of journalism is a discipline of verification, using an objective method. The authors explain: “Being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of journalism. Because the journalist must make decisions, he or she is not and cannot be objective. But journalistic methods are objective.” I doubt most readers understand those important distinctions, so we need to explain them at every opportunity. They need to know we’re on their side, and how we work.

community issues

Saying goodbye to Dixie

I grew up whistling Dixie. Literally. It was one of the first songs my daddy taught me, and I liked it. A third-culture kid growing up in British Commonwealth countries, it gave me a connection to my home state of Louisiana. It evoked images of grand plantation homes like Tara in Gone with the Wind, as well as more humble memories of my grandparents’ farm in the rural South. More than anything, though, I just liked the tune.

While many of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, I never thought they were fighting for slavery. Most of my people were country folk, and while segregation was common, we weren’t taught to hate colored people. In fact, my dad told stories of earning some pocket money as a kid by picking cotton alongside African-Americans. He never claimed to be better than they were. There was social separation, yes, but overt racism, no.

Fast forward to my college years, after my return to the United States, and I began to see things differently. We were told to lock our car doors if we were going through the “dark” side of town. When an African-American (male) friend gave me a ride back to Houston late one night, someone told me that I could have put myself in danger by riding with a black man because someone might see that and I “might get shot.” I couldn’t believe it.

At the same time as I was coming to grasp with the reality of racism in the U.S., however, I also saw groups of black college students congregating together on the steps of the student center, without any white students. I pondered this, wondering why African-Americans would fight so hard for desegregation and then separate themselves out.

Later, I figured out that “social separation” was not always forced, but just a matter of cultural differences; or it was easier for some people to do than the hard work of trying to build bridges. I was fortunate to have friends of many races, cultures and backgrounds, but that wasn’t the case for most people. Most people, I learned, gravitate toward others who are most like themselves.

Over the years, I have learned a lot about the differences between North and South, especially with regards to race relations. I can speak with more authority now that I have spent time in cities across the country, and have a child who is of a different race. Up until this year, she has been in Title 1 schools where Caucasians were a small minority. That has given me perspective as well.

While cities across the South are tearing down their Confederate monuments, the truth of the matter is that racism is not a Southern thing (nor just an American thing, for that matter). It is alive and well in the North, even if it’s not out in the open. Some of the most virulent racists I have ever met have been from Northern states. “Social separation” doesn’t begin to describe the hatred for minorities that filled their hearts.

To white people who would say that prejudice works both ways, yes it does. When my daughter is ridiculed at school for having a white mom, I feel it. And yet, when I make the effort to break down those barriers, and those kids and their parents realize that I’m okay with their ethnicity, any tension that might have been there is immediately erased.

Most African Americans sporting Black Lives Matter t-shirts aren’t violent BLM activists. After decades of incidents like the beating of Rodney King, and statistics showing that blacks are more likely to be killed by police, they are genuinely afraid of white people in authority. Just like Rosa Parks determined that she had a right to a public bus seat, many minorities feel they must continue to speak up for their rights to have a place in American society. Just as white people are frequently told to stay out of black neighborhoods, for fear of violent acts towards them, so black people and other minorities are told to be cautious when passing through all-white communities.

It is a sad statement on American society that we live in so much fear of one another. It is also sad, however, that we feel the need to erase the past in order to move beyond it. The violent protest by white supremacist groups over the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, shows that historical monuments hold significance for some groups.

The very fact that those monuments are now creating a rallying point for hate groups may be a good reason to take them down…or not. I think it’s up to each local community to decide which monuments to keep and which to remove. Yet, I hope that any tearing down can be done peacefully and respectfully; for only when we respect our history can we learn from it. After all, the bigger issue is not really about the statues themselves, is it? It’s about who we are and what we stand for, and that is a lot more evident in our everyday lives than in monuments of people from the past.

I will always be from the Land of Cotton and have no regrets about my Confederate heritage. Out of it has come a tradition of Southern hospitality and respect for others, including those of color. But today, I will say a virtual goodbye to Dixie and hope that the Confederate flag will wave only in museums, rather than being waved by people whose mission it is to hate. Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.