Tradition of Excellence comes to a close

Newspring Musings

Namon Bills

The announcement of 20 awards for The Sentinel, including Community Service and General Excellence at this year’s Utah Press Association convention is gratifying for me and all of the staff at The Sentinel. At the same time, the announcement is bittersweet, because it accompanies the news that, after four years of operation, The Sentinel will be closing its doors. Next week, March 31, 2010, will be our final edition.

In the current financial crisis, the Spanish Fork area has undergone its share of economic woes. As local businesses have lost revenues, they’ve cut back on their advertising. Our paper made some major cuts in 2009 in order to respond to decreasing ad revenue. Although we made it through 2009, and despite modest but steady increases in circulation, the advertising situation in 2010 has continued to deteriorate, making it no longer feasible to continue producing our paper.

I’ve never claimed to be a businessman, and I’m willing to shoulder the blame for the failure of this business. Ironically, my dedication to what I viewed as the heart of our business may have led to its economic end. But I do not apologize for that. Our newspaper has been community-first — as opposed to profit-first — since its inception in 2006. The number of stories and pages we produced was always based on how much was going on in the community. We’ve never left out local stories in order to adhere to an arbitrary ad percentage or page count.

Although we made cuts in 2009, I’m pleased to say that we did not cut our coverage of local events. In fact, we increased it. Over the past four years we did something that has never been done in this area — expand coverage from one to four high schools. Although there’s always room for improvement, our coverage of local high school sports and fine arts has been unprecedented and unrivalled. With the addition of Maple Mountain, we expanded to cover Mapleton as well.

We faced the challenge of unparalleled growth in a shrinking economy. We could have ignored the growth and settled for mediocrity. But that was never really an option for me, not after teaching Julie Yates.

Julie took my 2D Design class when I was a graduate student at Utah State. She came to the class as a senior, and I wasn’t expecting much. 2D Design is a foundation class for freshmen and sophomores. The only motivation for students to do well in the class is to bulk up their portfolios to apply to their programs. Seniors, like Julie, who had somehow missed the prerequisite but had gotten into their programs anyway, needed only to pass the class and get their diploma.

But Julie was different. Even though she only needed a C, she turned in her best work on every assignment. I came to learn that Julie held herself to a higher standard than most students. She had set excellence as her personal standard, and excellence was what she did — not because it was required to get her degree, but because that’s who she was.

Although Julie Yates was my student, I think I learned more from her than she did from me. I learned that excellence is not a question of competition or expediency. You don’t do excellent work just when people are watching. You do it regardless, because excellence is an essential part of your makeup. Excellence is not just what you do — it’s who you are.

Excellence has always been our mantra at The Sentinel — and we’ve been recognized for that with two General Excellence awards in our three years of competition. Most of the credit for that goes to our great staff of writers, photographers and designers; also to Lane Henderson, Dana Robinson, Jessica Peterson and Steve Hardman, with whom it has been my privilege to work. All of these have embodied a spirit of excellence and have made The Sentinel great.

And so, when the decision came down to reducing our paper to a mere shadow of its former self to match diminished revenue, or going out of business entirely, it was never really much of a decision. If we can’t have an excellent paper, we would rather have no paper at all. Mediocrity is not an option.

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt, speaking out against critics, said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who strives valiantly … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I think we have striven valiantly, in our small arena, in a worthy cause. And although we failed to make this a sustainable business, at the very least, we failed while daring greatly. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.