Readers conversation begins with focus group of one

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: April 5, 2012

As ombudsman, I want to hear what readers everywhere think of Stars and Stripes. To get that conversation going, I sought out a friend and former newspaper colleague, not long back from serving with his Army National Guard unit in Afghanistan.

Meet Lt. Col. Todd Hubbard, my focus group of one.

Todd’s with the 29th Infantry Division. When we met, he was circulation manager at the Virginia newspaper where I was editor. What he did downstream from the newsroom made all the difference about whether our work got to the print subscribers’ homes the next morning.

Fortunately for us — and for those readers — he was a guy whose competence and judgment we could count on.

The routine miracle was tricky enough — reporting, editing and printing a newspaper, then delivering it to tens of thousands of scattered, far-flung, specific addresses overnight, every night. But we also depended on that delivery operation when things were anything but routine. Todd and I collaborated through hurricanes, nor’easters, cliffhanger election nights, “Extra” editions — and even the rare (and therefore, in Virginia, incapacitating) coating of snow and ice.

OK, that’s not much, compared with getting Stripes around the world, especially downrange. But, as I said, he’s somebody I learned to trust.

Not long before I left the paper, duty called Todd to training at Fort Belvoir, Va., and then to service in Afghanistan. He was gone for about 18 months.

When I heard he was back at work as circulation manager, I decided to get a first-hand report from a Stars and Stripes reader whose perspective on news I already knew and respected.

First, of course, I had to ask: When he was deployed, did he read Stars and Stripes?

“All the time,” he said. “Everybody wanted one. They were gone as soon as they came out.”

Todd spent his time in Afghanistan in Kabul, at the Army Operations Center of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command. He was part of a team of about 30, including 10 Americans along with British, Canadian, Hungarian and other coalition troops. He worked with an Afghan colonel and a team that took daily reports from the field, summarized them and presented them to the Ministry of Defense.

As part of Joint Command, they weren’t isolated from the news.

“I would sit through a lot of briefings,” he recalled. “You’d get a lot from official channels about what was going on. But then you could read about it in Stars and Stripes. It was like getting an unbiased view, another view.”

He added, “I always felt I was getting the real story.”

Music to any editor’s ears — and the ombudsman’s, too.

And that’s certainly the Stripes newsroom’s objective — to provide an independent, impartial account of the news. Stripes’ operating directive describes the purpose on a grand scale: so that deployed American servicemembers and their families can exercise their citizenship rights.

Todd described the value of the independent report in terms that match that citizenship purpose: “You want to take these things and make your own assessment, come to your own conclusions.”

And he spoke to the personal purpose behind distributing this American newspaper downrange: “It’s also just nice to learn about things from home.”

That purpose plays to a broad audience, he said. “I was surprised that the young guys were reading it, too, because of that stereotype that they’re only interested in the Web.”

In fact, working at Joint Command in Kabul meant Todd had good, free Internet access in his quarters. “People would get late-breaking news online — in their rooms. But when I was at the Afghan camp where I worked in a secure location, the Internet was very restricted. Then you have the print version that you can take with you.”

Just a few miles up the road from Kabul, he said, good, free Internet was hard to come by. Sparser Web access meant Internet time was for email or otherwise contacting family and friends. That, Todd said, made the print version of Stripes more important.

He brought some Stars and Stripes editions home to Virginia, another sort of testimonial to the idea that the paper was relevant to him downrange.

I’m looking for feedback from Stars and Stripes readers worldwide — and not just compliments. Talking with my friend was a good start, and I hope this column primes the pump for a conversation with servicemembers and their families everywhere.

Please join in by email or by attaching comments to this column or my blog.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

Ernie Gates’ blog

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