Readers report on CoMo's longest-running pundit

COLUMBIA, Mo 12/31/13 (Beat Byte) -- Longtime readers from all walks of life give Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters high marks in a new 107-page study of his 48-year career as a local editorial writer.

But some study participants delivered a familiar criticism: that conflicts of interest involving Columbia's top business leaders harm Waters' credibility.

"Hank Waters has intrinsic value that makes him worth studying," writes Michael Davis, who designed and conducted the study as part of his masters degree work at the Missouri Journalism School.  "He carries a unique place in this city as a chronicler of its evolution and history."

Davis solicited study participation in both the Tribune and Heart Beat.

"Multiple banner advertisements were purchased in the Columbia Heart Beat, an alternative online newspaper," Davis explains. "The advertisements ran for one week in the Tribune's newspaper and online; and ran for two weeks on Columbia Heart Beat's website.  The only requirement was that potential interview subjects be well versed in Hank Waters and his history as an editorial writer for the Tribune."

Nineteen people responded, with thirteen completing the questionnaire on pages 74-76. To assure anonymity, Davis refers to each subject by number.

"Words like 'intelligent,' 'well informed,' and the phrase 'good person' were used to describe Waters," Davis explains. "The majority of respondents said that Waters' editorials are fair, and that he does a good job of giving the other side of any issue enough space and discussion."

Unlike many newspaper editors, Waters, 83, also signs his columns -- the familiar HJW III -- making them significantly more credible, Davis discovered, than unsigned editorials like those authored by editorial boards.  "A number of participants appreciated his honesty and integrity because he signed his editorials, holding himself accountable to his readers," Davis says.

Candidate endorsements -- a practice unique to the Tribune -- were among top reasons study subjects cited for their long-term readership.  Subject Four "waits for Waters' endorsements to learn about the candidates," she told Davis. "I think he really tries to pick the best candidate for whatever office it is."

As a City Council candidate, Subject 13 participated in Waters' well-known vetting process -- a one-on-one interview. "Initially, Subject 13 said that Waters did not give his opinions much credence," Davis relates. "However, after the subject confronted Waters about the lack of coverage, he quickly apologized and corrected the neglect."

A guessing game about Waters' political leanings -- is he right, left, Republican, Libertarian, or some hybrid -- both frustrates and consoles his readers, Davis found.  Editorials about controversial subjects like abortion leave some readers steamed.  But candidate endorsements come across as more even-handed when the columnist can't be politically pigeon-holed.

Conflicts of interest rank as Trib readers' "biggest contention with Waters," Davis discovered.  He is "a part of the good ole' boy establishment in Columbia," supporting businesses that support him personally, Subject 12 told Davis. This bias "colors Waters' thoughts on the issues, eminent domain among them, Subject 11 said.
"This much resentment over his affiliation or support of local businesses is a big red flag," Davis writes.
The conflict of interest controversy peaked when Waters orchestrated private talks with business and political leaders to take Bengals Restaurant and other private property via eminent domain for a state historical society museum, a scandal this publication broke in 2008

Without disclosing his involvement, Waters wrote editorials endorsing the project.

"We suggested that the city condemn some property for our use.  And that got into some issues of eminent domain," Waters told Davis during a personal interview that starts on pg. 99.   "One of the criticisms was I was on the board, and they said that I would benefit from this facility.  And I just sat back and said that's crap.  I'm working for the benefit of the community."

Davis hopes his study can benefit the worldwide journalism community, primarily by showing how "personality can increase the credibility and strength of audience engagement."

"Folksy, curmudgeonly, warm, kind, and fair," Hank Waters, his readers say, has plenty of personality. 

"Just put an idea out, for people to chew on it, either to think about again or for the first time.  There's nothing more to it," Waters told Davis.  "Editorial writers who think that the goal or expectation should be to persuade people, to cause action, are barking up the wrong tree."