Columbia Journalism Review, in its The Audit feature on business journalism, gives a stinging review of the Fort Smith Times-Record coverage of the news last week that Whirlpool would be closing its refrigerator factory in Fort Smith, putting 1,000 people out of work.
Whirlpool is laying off more than a thousand employees in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and shipping the work to Mexico and two plants in the U.S.
So how does the local paper, the Southwest Times Record, cover the exit of one of its largest employers? With stories that read like they were written by Whirlpool’s PR department.
The lead of the paper's first story began, not with the closure, but Whirlpool's supposed efforts to "ease the transition" for people about to be unemployed. No worker quoted. Mostly a regurgitation of the Whirlpool news release.
It was breaking news, of course, but that’s no excuse here, when other outlets wrote far better stories. And this later story, which leads the paper’s page one today, isn’t any better. It gets around to quoting newly fired workers, but they’re awfully positive about their newfound circumstances:
While the news of the plant’s closure upset or discouraged some workers, he sees this as an opportunity to pull together.
“Sometimes (change) opens the door for other opportunities, to grow and pull together as a family … . A lot of people to me are all about self. Communities have to pull together to make things work,” Thompson said. “I’m a Christian guy and I believe God knows what he’s doing, and with things happening like they’re happening, it’s (an opportunity) for America to grow stronger.”
CJR credits The City Wire, the on-line news site in Fort Smith, with much better coverage, hours earlier. It also credits better coverage from the Democrat-Gazette, which found unhappy workers (imagine that!) and delved into the broader economic impact.
This is a good opportunity to mention that public television offered Fort Smith a hint about the future last night on its Need to Know program. The picture isn't pretty. The PBS show reported on the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement and used as an example Evansville, Ind., once the refrigerator capital of America. How has it fared since Whirlpool closed its refrigerator plant there? The plant still sits empty. See the segment below: