Editor’s note: Stamford publisher Callie Metler-Smith recently ran for and won a local school board position — an unconventional move in a profession that has long held that journalists should stay out of politics. We asked her to explain why she did it.
As small town newspaper publishers, editors, and reporters we all know the rule. We are ethically bound by our position to remain impartial and unbiased in our reporting. When I opened my small town community newspaper almost 10 years ago, there was a rule set forth in my newspaper’s style book. It read, “As an employee of Clear Fork Media Group you should at all times appear impartial and never hold an elected position.” After all, how can you report on a board if you are also serving on that board?
So how do I, a newspaper owner and publisher with newspaper ink going back four generations find myself running and winning a spot on my local school board?
I would like to say there is a simple answer, but there isn’t. My main reason for running was that I wanted to be more involved in the community I love. At the beginning of 2018, I set one simple goal for myself, to be more involved and serve in my community.
Over the last few years, I have covered fewer meetings, letting my editor take the reins in those areas, but have attended more community-minded meetings, such as Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and local Lions Club. I realized as both a small business owner and a woman, that it was my job to become more connected to my community, and that this was where my passion lies, especially since the community my newspaper covered was the same one where I had grown up and the school was the one I had attended K-12.
I also noticed that my job as mom to three of the kids attending our local school district was enough to show interest in the direction the school was going. Since two of my kids are special education and require more hands-on attention, I often see a side of the school others don’t. It is the side of hardworking people who often don’t get the credit for the work they do. One day an incident at the school showed me an interesting perspective.
When I mentioned the incident to an administrator and offered some insight on how I felt about it, I got an interesting response: “I’ve never thought of that before. You should really run for school board, you have a very unique perspective.” The seed of running was planted.
I asked a few other people what they thought and got basically the same reaction from every single one. Not only did I know a lot about the school district and offer a unique perspective, I had also been sitting in the audience of the local school board meetings for more than 10 years.
So I did it. I signed up.
I had already discussed with one of my employees that they would be responsible for covering all school board meetings and had to remain unbiased in their accounts. I also got the opinion of other newspaper people I knew.
When election day came, I was elected and I had done it. I broke my own rule. I also had not heard from any of my subscribers concerned about my running — in fact many of them said they were excited about the prospect.
The truth is that we as community newspapers are in our own little category. We may report on what is going on in our town, but we are also part of that town. We may write about a fight that broke out in a City Council meeting on Monday, but chances are on Friday we will find ourselves sitting next to the mayor at lunch. In a town of 3,000 people, it is impossible for it to be any other way. We have a leadership position in our community. We are the town crier, the town cheerleader, and the local fact-checker for our town. We also are a local business owner, reside in the town, seek medical care at our local hospital, and have kids who attend the local school district. It is impossible to be impartial when you have a personal stake in the decisions your local elected officials are making.
As for my new hat of school board member, is it an odd hat for a newspaper owner to wear? Yes. Did I ever think I would wear it 10 years ago? No. But I am very excited about what adventures this new hat will bring.