This article was originally published in CPA's quarterly magazine PressNext. Click here to subscribe and have your print copy delivered.
Jay Seaton, publisher of The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, is a timely choice for a Q&A session, given the current climate swirling in the newspaper industry around the topic of “fake news.” A lawyer as well, he and his newspaper recently found themselves in a dispute with legal implications with a state senator on that issue, with resolution yet to come. Here is Seaton’s take on his newspaper, the industry and the major issues facing both at this time:
(Editor's note: Seaton has decide to not sue since the time of writing. Click here for an update.)
Q1: Let’s get right to it. In February, an editorial in your newspaper asked that State Sen. Ray Scott (R-District 7 and who served as a regional field director for Donald Trump’s campaign in Colorado) help advance a bill that would modernize CORA, the Colorado Open Records Act (specifically to require government agencies to release digital copies of documents in a machine-readable format, if available).
He responded by tweeting (in part): “We have our own fake news in Grand Junction. The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill … You may have a barrel of ink but it just splashed in your face.”
You responded quickly with talk of a libel lawsuit. In addition to the open records topic, this local slant on this national issue encompasses the definition of fake news, First Amendment rights and responsibilities, even legislative immunity. What is your current take on all this, and what is the current status of legal action against Sen. Scott?
A: Since I was a child, I have watched my father, publisher of a community newspaper in Kansas, fight for press freedoms throughout Latin America with the Inter American Press Association. He has gone toe-to-toe with vicious dictators, including Fidel Castro. Assaults on a free press are first in the playbook of despotic regimes.
Similarly, I consider charges of fake news against legitimate news organizations to be an assault on a free press in this country. Credibility and integrity are newspapers’ only real assets, so from a legal standpoint, attempts to damage those assets are no different from someone smashing an ice cream store’s ice cream maker. It’s deliberate damage for which there is a legal remedy.
When Sen. Scott accused The Sentinel of being fake news, he was very deliberately attempting to delegitimize a credible news source in order to avoid being held accountable by it. I have consulted outside counsel about the claim, and the merits remain sound. That said, there are some non-merits-related issues that give me pause.
First, as a state senator, Ray Scott can have the taxpayers of Colorado pay for his legal defense. Second, his defense of legislative immunity, though toothless, is immediately appealable. That is, if he loses on a motion to dismiss on the basis of legislative immunity, he can immediately appeal the denial to the court of appeals, and after losing there, to the Colorado Supreme Court. This means he can hang the case up for two years (on the taxpayers’ dime) before any court hears the merits of the case.
I would like nothing more than a legal decision defining “fake news” and a declaration that The Daily Sentinel is not a purveyor of anything fake. That said, I’m not excited to see Colorado taxpayers pick up the tab from Holland & Hart in defense of Ray Scott.
Q2: Given the changes in the national political landscape, do you foresee several years of undue generalizations of newspapers as sources of fake news (generally defined as information published to deliberately fool or trick readers and generate web traffic and revenue), and what can be done to counter unfair characterizations that can only harm the industry?
A: We all know what fake news is. It is deliberately fabricated information intended to deceive the reader. So, when political figures assert that credible news organizations are “fake news” whenever we print an unflattering story, they are attempting to change the meaning of the term “fake news” in a manner that both robs the term of its objective meaning and simultaneously delegitimizes any news organization critical of them.
Sen. Scott’s best defense may be to assert that the definition of the term “fake news” has lost its objective meaning and now represents some kind of general pejorative for things we don’t like. It’s his best defense because it would mean that his tweet was actually protected opinion, not defamation.
I take a dim view of this defense. It is akin to a politician asserting, “When I call my opponent a child molester, I am referring to his unpaid parking tickets. It’s what those words mean to me. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing.”
Words have real meanings, and in the case of fake news, recent tangible examples. Linguists say it takes years to change the meaning of words. But when the leader of the free world abuses the term almost daily, who knows what a jury might say?
Q3: About the senator’s initial tweet, you said in a recent television interview: “This is not a criticism of what we do. This is a direct assault on our credibility, which for a newspaper is our only real asset.”
Also that, “The only valuable currency in the court system is truth … I would like to see how a court actually handles this kind of false allegation.” Do you have faith that your newspaper will only come out stronger for this and why?
A: Easy answer: We are not fake news. We are not in the business of deception. Quite the opposite. I think if people understood the rigors of the editorial process on the information we present to the public, they would return to newspapers as that one trusted source for reliable, vetted information. Sometimes I wish people could know the juicy unconfirmed information that never makes print because we can’t nail it down.
In the judicial context, the real defense to a defamation claim is that the questioned statement is true. I would love for Sen. Scott – or anyone – to attempt to defend a lawsuit from a legitimate newspaper on the basis that the newspaper peddles fake news.
Q4: After earning your bachelor of arts degree in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and your juris doctorate at the University of Kansas, you worked for two Missouri law firms: first in toxic tort litigation at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, then as a corporate and commercial litigation partner at Lewis Rice & Fingersh (now Lewis Rice LLC) for nearly 12 years.
Was your plan to dovetail your legal experience into publishing, or did you have a career plan in law? And how did you make the jump from law to publishing?
A: I actually decided on law school as a means of getting into the family business. I had a little 13-year distraction before doing what I had intended to do all along. I became a partner at a wonderful Midwest law firm and could have spent the rest of my life there happily attending to the legal needs of our clients.
The practice of law, however, functions effectively as training for running a newspaper. As a practicing attorney, I made about 400 decisions a day. At the Sentinel, I’m doing roughly the same thing, but instead of making legal decisions, I’m making business and news decisions. It wasn’t a huge jump, but this gig is a helluva lot more fun than commercial litigation.
Q5: You are the publisher for Grand Junction Media, Inc., formed in 2009 as a subsidiary of The Seaton Publishing Co., Inc. with the purchase of The Daily Sentinel from Cox Enterprises Inc. The sale included the flagship daily, its website, and the affiliated want-ads circular The Nickel.
The acquisition expanded the network of Seaton family member-run newspapers already in place in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. The Daily Sentinel was founded in 1893, and today circulates across much of western Colorado and into eastern Utah, along with your TMC tabloid product Sentinel Weekly, GJSentinel.com and a full-service digital agency that includes website development, social media management, video editing and YouTube management.
You have a healthy daily print circulation, 1.3 million average monthly page views and more than 207,000 average monthly unique visitors to the website. How do you plan for coverage over such a large territory, and is there still room to grow?
A: I wake up each day thinking about how I am going to feed and grow the newsroom. That is my top priority; everything else we do serves that mission in my view.
We circulate in a vast area, but focus our reporting on the Grand Valley. We have an excellent reporter in Silt who covers oil & gas and public lands issues throughout the Piceance Basin, but there is plenty of wild news right in happy valley to keep us busy.
If I could add 10 reporters tomorrow, we would keep them all furiously busy. For such a small community (MSA-metropolitan statistical area-150,000), we have more than our fair share of newsworthy tomfoolery, ballyhoo, tragedy and scandal.
Q6: The Seaton Publishing Co., Inc., is a fourth-generation, Manhattan, Kan.-based family company. You were executive vice president at Seaton, and left in 2009 to join The Daily Sentinel’s executive team. Seaton has a reputation for emphasizing “local news” in its publications. What have you incorporated or enhanced at The Daily Sentinel that follows that tenet?
A: Candidly, Daily Sentinel editors Denny Herzog, Laurena Davis and Mike Wiggins pivoted to focus on local issues shortly before I arrived on the scene. I have simply coat-tailed their vision.
From a business plan standpoint, we have thousands of competitors when it comes to national news, but we own the news in Grand Junction. We are the only entity capable of genuinely covering the area. My objective is to present vetted, contextualized information about our community that folks cannot get from any other source. That makes us indispensible.
Q7: Newspapers have been downsizing staff and rethinking the newsgathering model for some time now. What changes have you made at The Daily Sentinel – either in 2009 or more recently – along those lines?
A: Regrettably, we are no different from any other newspaper in that we have downsized staff, including newsroom personnel, which is heartbreaking. But the management team I inherited here eight years ago punches above its weight. Over the last three years, we have reduced overall expenses by 20 percent with, I believe, very little impact on the quality of our news product or service to customers.
I love the idea of rethinking the newsgathering model, but I haven’t found a way to do so without engaged, hungry reporters. My priority is finding a way to bring more humans on board in the newsroom.
To that end, I engaged a business coach a few years ago – a corporate turnaround guy. His counsel in making tough business decisions has been enormously beneficial and I would recommend it for every publisher in the business. Business innovation is something this industry sorely needs.
Q8: What other major challenges – e.g., in newsgathering, revenue building, technology – do you see ahead for your and other newspapers?
A: Newspapers were tasked by our founding fathers with the duty to act as an outside check on the apparatus of government. Indeed, after drafting the plans for the three branches of government, the founders’ very next act – the amendment they called the First – was to immunize the press from their control in order to empower the press for that role.
This heavy burden we all take seriously, so we must find ways in a time of declining print revenue to remain financially healthy in order to continue serving that role in our communities in robust fashion.
This, not fake news, is our industry’s greatest challenge. At the Sentinel, we are attempting to meet the challenge with innovative new products, magazines, a digital agency and by finding efficiencies wherever we can.
But I believe what our industry needs most from a revenue standpoint is hunger and hustle. Print remains a fantastic medium to present enormous amounts of information daily, but we now have formidable competitors for advertising dollars. The phone doesn’t ring the way it used to. I think the solution is simply aggressive sales and hard management on a par with our competitors.
Q9: You're on the board of Rocky Mountain PBS, Riverside Education Center, the Saccomanno Higher Education Foundation and Rocky Mountain Health Plans, on the Colorado Economic Development Commission, and former chair of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.
You’re also a member of The Colorado Forum, formed in 1978 to involve business leaders as “an informed, objective voice on critical public policy issues facing the state.”
These organizations focus on education, health and business, but with the Forum, are there particular areas or issues you’re currently targeting?
A: I am far less altruistic than my board activity might indicate. Indeed, most of my board focus has a dirty profit motive. To wit: The performance of my company is directly tied to the economic performance of my local community. As it goes, we go.
So, I’m interested in pumping up the economic performance of western Colorado. This area has been on its back since early 2009, so I have become highly involved in local and state economic development efforts.
The economic fortunes of any community are driven most by the quality of its K-16 education program, so schools and school funding are of particular interest to me. It happens to be a primary focus of The Colorado Forum.
A local newspaper should act as a mirror to its community, but when appropriate, it can also act as booster. We won’t ever contort the news to make our community look better, but we advocate regularly for local and state policy that we believe will result in a healthier western Colorado, starting with enhanced funding for our schools.
Q10: Parting words of wisdom for journalists, veteran or new on the job?
A: Newspapering is a noble, serious profession that plays a vital role in this constitutional republic. Everyone who works in this industry, from managing editor to mailroom worker, should take genuine pride in what we all do. I certainly do.