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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2020 1 month ago

OBSERVED: When a national story hits too close to home

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For more than a century, we have been the paper of record for West Orange. Translation: We are responsible for recording our community’s history.
by: Michael Eng Editor and Publisher

Years ago, I received a nastygram from a reader that tickled my funny bone. The note came after we had covered a controversial news story, and this particular reader didn’t like it.

Stick to pictures of cute kids, the reader wrote, which you’re good at. I guess.

This reader wasn’t all wrong. It’s true: As a hyperlocal community media outlet, we love good news. We love to plaster it all over our front page. This week’s cover stories — about Windermere High’s first West Point appointee (Southwest Orange Observer) and a West Orange High alum who graduated from the United States Naval Academy (West Orange Times & Observer) — warm my heart. And I hope they warm yours, too.

So, I get it: When our coverage turns heavy, it can be jarring. Which is why, when news broke about Minnesota police officer and accused killer Derek Chauvin owning a Florida home — inexplicably — near Windermere (and to be clear, not in the town of Windermere), I knew our coverage would throw some folks. 

Here’s a sample of the feedback we received on Facebook:

And when his home gets robbed or vandalized, a resident terrorized or worse, the blood will be on the hands of the (West Orange) Times!

If riots come (here) and cause (damage) to the condo and other families, this is on you. … I hope you can sleep tonight after putting Windermere in danger.

This is going start a riot. Why publish this? Makes no sense!

Further still, several folks accused us of publishing the address, insinuating we wanted rioting to come to our community.

I cannot let these falsehoods go without rebuttal.

First: We are decidedly pro-West Orange. We are pro-small business, pro-good schools, pro-soaring property values. We want our communities to succeed. For goodness’ sake, it’s in our company mission statement: “To inspire our communities with extraordinary local content and to help our partners prosper.”

And for more than a century, we also have been the paper of record for West Orange. Translation: We are responsible for recording our community’s history. Last week, we published a tribute to Carl “Pete” Peters, a former Winter Garden fire chief. In doing her research, Community Editor Amy Quesinberry utilized archive material from our newspaper. This is a regular occurrence. When we plan coverage, our team feels the full weight of that responsibility. We know our successors — 50, 100 and 200 years into the future — will use what we publish today to inform their own content. So, it has to be accurate, reasoned and complete.

A peek behind the curtain: Although news of Chauvin’s Florida connection broke on Twitter in the wee hours of Friday, May 29, we knew about it two days earlier. Here are excerpts from the text conversation I had with our editorial team Wednesday, May 27:

Not 100% sure on this, but I think that cop in Minnesota also has a townhouse in Windermere. … I have to dig a little more to be sure, but this guy is the same age, and the mailing address is Minnesota. … I’m wondering the newsworthiness of it. From what I can tell, they use the place in Windermere as a rental property. … So not even sure if they ever are here. It teeters on clickbait. Plus, the mob has their Minnesota address all over social. Only a matter of time before the Windermere address is publicized.

We decided not to publish. We didn’t have 100% proof it was the same Chauvin. And furthermore, we couldn’t justify it as newsworthy.

That changed two days later, when, as predicted, the address leaked on Twitter. Then, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that Chauvin was not at the house and had no plans to be there.

Suddenly, we had both confirmation it was the same Chauvin and a reason to publish information pertinent to our community. Still, we remained vague with the details of the townhouse’s location, publishing only that the home was “near Windermere.” We never published the address.

Still arguing the information wasn’t important? Imagine you lived in that same townhome community, and you opened your front door to find 200 protestors and a heavy police presence on your street. Wouldn’t you want to know what is happening? Or maybe you’d like to know so you can take your family away from the area for a while. Or maybe you’d want to know so you can take proper precautions to secure your own home and property.

Oh yeah, and that pesky paper-of-record thing. It’s important West Orange residents a century from now know there was a local aspect to this story.

And to those who head-scratchingly have said we want stuff like this to happen: Nope. Not in the least. I’m much happier publishing pictures of cute kids any day of the week. As we made plans to cover the protest, we joked about Sports Editor Troy Herring wearing a pink hard hat or Star Wars cosplay as protection. But here’s how that conversation ended:

Me: In all seriousness, be careful. Peeps be crazy.

Troy: Shall do my best. I can’t imagine it turning violent.

Me: Me either, but still. One of the rules of working here is not dying.

That rule is a joke I tell every new hire. But it comes from a real sense of responsibility I feel for our folks, and I never am comfortable putting them in potentially dangerous situations.

Yes, it comes with the territory, but it is never easy. 

I know not everyone will agree with every content decision we make, but I hope you can understand each is made with consideration of our mission statement, our responsibility as the scribes of West Orange history and our desire to inform you, our loyal reader.

Michael Eng is the editor and publisher for the West Orange Times & Observer, West Orange Observer, Baldwin Park Living magazine and OrangeObserver.com. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Missouri — Columbia School of Journalism....

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