This is the text of a speech I delivered in 2019 to Rotarians in Port Lavaca, Texas. The column was originally published in the Victoria Advocate, where I was editor and publisher. I share it again for the Fort Worth Report audience because the message speaks to our nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization’s mission to inform, engage and empower. I am rereading the piece as I prepare to deliver more speeches in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. What resonates with you? What would you add to the conversation?
Rotarians are understandably proud of their four-way test. It is impressive in its brevity and clarity, but you might want to consider adding a fifth test.
Rotarians consider the test to be a moral code for personal and business relationships. Chicago businessman Herbert Taylor wrote it in the 1930s as he was trying to save the Club Aluminum Products distribution company from bankruptcy.
At their club meetings, Rotarians recite the test:
“Of the things we think, say or do,
- “Is it the truth?
- “Is it fair to all concerned?
- “Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
- “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”
A fifth test could translate the first four into action: “Can I get others to care, too?”
Every time I hear the four-way test, I am reminded of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Journalists also rest their code on four principles:
- Seek truth and report it.
- Minimize harm.
- Act independently.
- Be accountable and transparent.
Early versions of the journalism code date back to 1926 – shortly before Herbert Taylor wrestled with similar questions. Journalists updated and adopted the current version of the code in 2014.
More than a decade ago, the Victoria Advocate formed an ethics board to help the newspaper’s journalists think through the competing interests expressed by the four principles of the code. The ethics board meets monthly. Rotarians recite their code weekly.
Skip Sockell of the Port Lavaca Rotary Club invited me to speak after reading the newspaper’s editorial board opinion about issues Crossroads lawmakers should focus on during this session. The opinion piece, dated Jan. 16, was titled, “Lawmakers must keep focus on key issues.”
Sockell explained the editorial caught his attention because every year the Rotary Club’s chapter president sets a theme. For the Port Lavaca Rotary, this year’s theme is “Engage with the community,” asking all members to find ways to get more involved with their communities.
“You could speak to us about what issues you see our community facing, possible actions and ways that Rotarians could get involved,” Sockell wrote to me.
That is a daunting and humbling invitation. Rotarians have been doing good work since 1905. They have fought polio and other diseases, promoted peace, supported education and pushed to grow their local economies, among many other good causes.
The opinion piece Sockell liked touched on several of these same subjects as important to the Crossroads: public education, job growth and hurricane recovery. The editorial also called for more unity and less divisive rhetoric when helping our communities.
Which issue matters the most this year in Port Lavaca? Clearly, the people gathered in this room today are best suited to answer this question. But, you asked me, so here’s my best answer:
I would go back to your president’s excellent theme: “Engage with the community.” How do we get more community members engaged in civic life? In the age of Facebook, how do we get people to think about doing good for the community as often as they post a selfie?
I wish I had easy answers for you to these questions. Our biggest competition at the Advocate is not Google or Facebook or the Houston Chronicle or the Port Lavaca Wave. No, it is that too many people simply don’t care.
They don’t care who is running for Victoria mayor or for the Calhoun Port Authority board. They don’t see the connection between what government does or doesn’t do and whether they have a job or get a raise. They don’t join Rotary or any other service organization. They don’t read a newspaper.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” that America’s representative form of government flourished in part because of the high degree of political participation among its citizens. People formed associations and worked to take charge of their lives and their government.
“Newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers …,” de Tocqueville wrote. “Thus, of all countries on earth, it is in America that one finds both the most associations and the most newspapers.”
Americans are, at the same time, both more connected and less connected than at any time in my 58 years on this earth. The civic discourse is at its ugliest, too.
Somewhere, we have lost our way. How will each one of us put America back on the right path?
For What It’s Worth
Editor’s note: Publisher/CEO Chris Cobler is a nostalgic Baby Boomer who likes to name his columns after 1960s protest anthems. When he was editor of the Washburn University Review in 1980 in Topeka, Kan., he called his column “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Now that he’s in Fort Worth, he can’t resist the title of another of his favorite songs, “For What It’s Worth.”
Although the songs are political, Cobler pledges to keep his columns focused on the community and not partisan politics. The mission of the Fort Worth Report is to bring people together around fact-based journalism, making this line in the Buffalo Springfield song especially meaningful: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”