A Lesson Learned From A Topless Dancer



The Payson Roundup is a community newspaper, but are there segments of the community that we should never discuss?

On the surface, that seemed to be what a few people were suggesting as the Letters to the Editor, the phone calls and the e-mails rolled in responding to a front page profile of a topless dancer.

The story was an attempt to show readers a part of the community that rarely gets attention. We wanted to answer the questions: Who chooses to make a living as a stripper? And why?

Whether we want to discuss it or not, the truth is that we live in a town and in a society where a woman can make more money in a weekend taking off her shirt than she can as a schoolteacher.

The dancers at Pete's Place also represent an interesting economic trend. While hundreds of workers commute to the Valley for better paying jobs, this handful of women commute in the opposite direction to Payson where there is money to be made.

As I talked to callers who were upset about the story, they did not argue these points. Though a few were upset that the story ran at all, most had more specific complaints.

First, many were bothered by the placement of the story on the front page.

As I listened, my eyes were opened to the significance many put on the front page.

Beyond the editorial page, the front page is probably the most subjective thing in the newspaper.

Given the same list of stories, different editors will create completely different front pages. I choose stories that have impact on the community -- politically or otherwise -- stories that I find fascinating or compelling, and stories that come with good photos.

I put the dancer story on the front page for the last two reasons.

I asked callers if they would have seen the story differently if it had been placed on another page in the paper, perhaps on the cover of the Living section, and they said, "yes."

Secondly, they worried about the tone of the article -- that it glorified a profession in which they would not want their daughters involved.

That was not our intention. We did not write the article to encourage others to join the profession, rather to shed light on it for a moment so people could better understand it.

As a reporter, whose job is to be objective, I'm not sure where the writer could have interjected judgment of the person or profession.

There was one paragraph that seemed to show me the larger reality of the dancer's world. It was the moment when the Pete's Place manager talked about the guards that are provided to the girls as they walk home and the security that is offered to them through the night.

This week was a lesson for me. I know Payson better than I did a week ago. I understand the values that many hold and the boundaries of what many believe is acceptable.

But I will also say, that I was proud of my reporter for searching out a story that was not easy to get and I will continue to encourage my staff to search for stories that go beyond what you expect.

As a newspaper it is our job to build a relationship with the community by being a part of it, and yet also being an objective eye. We must be in the middle of things and also be walking the perimeter.

We walk a fine line between showing you parts of our community we may not want to see, while also presenting an image that in some way reflects the way we see ourselves.

In a community where religion is a large part of many reader's lives, I would not put a story about a topless dancer on the front page of the paper again. But I would not be afraid to run it.

As always, call or e-mail me with your thoughts. This is a learning process and I no one learns in a vacuum. Call 474-5251 ext. 115 or e-mail editor@payson.com.

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