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Birmingham Bombing

The front page of The Billings Gazette from Sept. 16, 1963.

My first job as a top editor at a newspaper came in 2004,  when I took over a Minnesota daily which had been founded in 1855. Back in the Franklin Pierce era, the newspaper was Republican (it was part of its name), which had as its mission to lobby for admitting Kansas as a "free soil" state.

It also proposed a slate of Republican candidates for local office.

Not a single one won.

But, I could be proud that the paper had started just one notch below an abolitionist rag. It was literally founded on the right side of history.

Almost a century later, that same paper crusaded to knock down the city's venerable landmark post office, which had gotten funding through one of its own native sons, William Windom, who was then the secretary of the treasury.

But, by the time urbanization and post-modern sensibilities hit southern Minnesota in the mid-1960s, the old Victorian-era stone fortress was out of style and it succumbed to a squarish, efficient post office. One of the defining features of the city wasn't lost to fire or flood, but to the local Chamber of Commerce.

That paper was on the wrong side of history then.

So, as Billings Gazette photographer Mike Clark has been gathering examples of front pages from our paper's past, it was bound to happen.

This paper, which was among the leaders when hate crimes hit the city in the 1990s, has also employed in headlines a bunch of words that, if used today, would get us rightfully excoriated and condemned. Some of the milder terms, if such a phrase can even be used, include "Japs" "Reds" "Commies" "Huns" and "Negroes." Some of the terms defined a race, others a political ideology. All were pejorative, and almost all were used self-righteously.

When we pulled the front page from the famous Alabama church bombings in 1963, we had a choice: Find a different historic front page, or deal with the obvious — the use of the word "negro" in the headline. 

At the time the paper was printed, that term was considered polite, given others that were still in use. Still, seeing the word today makes us cringe. 

It's also a great opportunity for us to talk about the language we use at The Gazette and our process. For those who accuse of us of mindlessly slapping any ol' word into print in the rush to hit deadline, that's simply never been a part of any newsroom in which I've worked. 

There are countless debates, sometimes lasting hours, about a particular word choice or headline. Words matter — sometimes so much so that we have to have a cooling off period before resuming the discussion. 

But, we're also a reflection (a permanent one) of the current norms and standards. At one time, not too long ago, the word "negro" was acceptable, if not preferred. 

Today, it's not acceptable, and we shouldn't be referring to someone's race unless it has a bearing on the subject of the story. After all, it would seem to be ridiculous to say, "Darrell Ehrlick, a Caucasian male...," in most instances, and yet we can still find examples of reporting that refers to race almost as a novelty or an implication. That demonstrates we still have a long way to go.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're making much headway as we label people from Muslim countries as potential threats, or call out alleged brown invaders at our country's southern borders. Today's politics may indeed make editors in several decades cringe.

We use the Associated Press Stylebook as a guide to our language. This is the style employed by most newspapers. It has and continues to change, every year issuing new style directives to reflect an evolving language and changing sensibilities and norms.

Some are a great geeky peeve of mine, like the AP's reckless use of the preposition "over" when it should be "more than." 

Others are a great deal more consequential, like how we refer to entire groups of people. 

At one time, the generic term "Indian" was acceptable for any Native American. But terms like "Indigenous" and "American Indian" or the practice of referring to a person by their specific tribal membership has become more normal.

In the case of the word "negro," the Associated Press has also changed its style on that as the word gave way to "black" and then "African American" and now to the advice: "Often, it is an irrelevant factor and drawing unnecessary attention to someone’s race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry." 

I hope that the evolution of our language — and how we use it on the pages of The Billings Gazette — reflects a more humane understanding. Yet, even if some future generation looks at the pages we're producing today and cringes, I can then only hope that we mirrored the way Billings really was at this moment in time, and pray that those same future folks will give us the mercy of context.

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