16 March 2012

Too little too late

In a bid to become more responsive to readers, mainstream media organisations have created positions known as Readers' Editors, whose job is nominally to identify consumer concerns and provide a means for addressing them in some way, but which in reality is a means for MSM management to pretend they're more open than they are, to pretend they're doing something they have no intention of doing. I will believe in Readers' Editors when I see one get one of their superiors sacked.

The most famous Readers' Editor in the world is Arthur S. Brisbane, who occupies that post for The New York Times. The controversy surrounding his "truth vigilante" utterances is well summarised by Jack Shafer, who links through to Brisbane's original posts. Basically, Brisbane believes it's too hard to compare what someone says against objective sources of reality, so if that's what you expected from journalism then ha ha ha. A journalist who is assigned to cover a particular area, and whose expertise over that area becomes a selling point for their employer, ought not be expected to know that area sufficiently well to identify inconsistencies or gaps by those operating within their area of expertise.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a Readers' Editor, Judy Prisk, a subeditor saved from redundancy by being shuffled into a non-job. Prisk sees her job as educating people how they are to read The Sydney Morning Herald and put up with what comes out of it. Here is Prisk's most recent column. Let's look at it to see how she does, and sees, her job.
On February 14 a Herald reader asked why an error he had seen in the edition of February 11-12 had not been corrected ... It was deemed its time had passed.
It was deemed by whom? It was deemed in accordance with what rules, what practice, what directives, what regulations or ethics or standards? The phrasing of this management decision in the abstract and the passive voice is telling: it doesn't concern you who or what is the clear message here, despite the 'who' and 'what' being centrally important to the issue.

Prisk tries to appear open-minded and even-handed:
I have written before about my attitude to corrections - the more the merrier, I say. And not just on "important" blues, such as forgetting to report the civil rights movement.
There was no question of "forgetting" to report the civil rights movement. Go to the seventh paragraph of Prisk's story, where she refers to a newspaper in the southern United States that "neglected" to report the civil rights movement, a centrally important public issue to its readership. A former subeditor should know that 'forgetting' and 'neglecting' aren't synonyms. The neglect identified by the Lexington Herald-Leader in that instance should prompt serious examination by that organisation as to the extent to which such 'neglect' is still part of their coverage; and that if such an enormous issue was neglected, what else is being neglected by people who call themselves 'reporters'?
... but what some may consider trivial others may see as part of a pattern, a sign that reporters and subeditors are not focused on aiming for perfection.
Never mind perfection: people read The Sydney Morning Herald in order to get reliable news. If journalists and their (sub)editors don't care about what they write, why should readers read it and treat it with any sort of credibility? The odd slip will be forgiven far more readily if the attempt to get facts right and correct them where they're wrong is clearly in evidence. It's easier for MSM organisations to brush off reader complaints as though they're perfectionist cranks rather than put in the hard yards of fact-checking and post-publication correction. Prisk's claim of 'perfection' is straw-man work.

Prisk has the entire back catalogue of The Sydney Morning Herald at her disposal. She could - if she wanted to, if she dared - see if there are any patterns which would indicate laziness as to facts and a lack of concern about the veracity or validity of material printed by that organisation. And if she discovered such a pattern, or had one pointed out to her by a reader, what would she do with it? Easier to negate it with an equal-but-opposite assertion and leave it there.
Getting street names, or geography, historical facts, dates, times, people's names wrong - not to mention grammatical and spelling errors - can all add up in readers' minds to a lack of faith in the paper.
Look at the decline in circulation of newspapers and realise it's too late for nonsense like that. Look at the fact that Prisk, while noting this phenomenon, proposes that absolutely nothing be done about them. Look at the trivial examples she uses, implying that the SMH gets the big issues right and should therefore be excused trivia. There are two rebuttals to this.

First, Barrie Cassidy on reporting the Rudd-Gillard leadership battle:
Peter Hartcher wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald ... that Rudd had not been "duchessing" editors. Yet Andrew Probyn wrote in the West Australian that not only was he "duchessing" editors, but in the process, he had referred to Gillard as "a bitch."
That is a direct contradiction about an aspect of the relationship between leaders of the media and leaders of the government in our country. Hartcher and Probyn cannot both be right. This goes well beyond a misspelling or some minor detail, it goes to core business of an outlet like the SMH. Yet, Prisk sees the errors of the SMH as insubstantial, and thus those who complain about them as trivial.

Second, journalist and academic Jenna Price identified an important and often overlooked group of people:
... the subjects of our stories who occasionally get done over by Big Media, Little Media, all media ... There is no process for them to get help. No-one stands up for them, ever.
Not even the Readers' Editor. It must be said that no such people teach journalism courses either.
It can also lead to some developing a theory that the paper does not care enough about some topics and cares too much about others.
The issue here is how soundly the theory is based, and if sound how it might be corrected - not what "some" may or may not dare to do.
The reader was angry no correction had been printed and was not mollified when she received an email saying it had been corrected online and in the archives but there would be no print correction. "I can imagine what would happen if you had wrongly attributed a recipe of Neil Perry's to Kylie Kwong or similar - it would be all over the letters page with grovelling apologies on page two."
That mixup with recipes was a big deal for the SMH and set a high standard for the paper's commitment to accuracy in dealing with people and issues it considered important (as opposed to, y'know, the government of the country). Nobody should be "mollified" by a patronising statement in that impersonal and disempowering passive voice: "there would be no print correction" (given the decline in advertising revenue, why not use all that blank space to print more corrections?).
Eventually I found the error had been deemed too old for a print correction.
Had been deemed by whom, Judy, by what ... oh, I give up.
How late is too late for a disillusioned reader? Time will tell.
How late is too late to consume a product by an organisation that doesn't give a damn about its wider market and which does whatever the hell suits itself? Prisk has interpreted her title as meaning that it's her job to edit the readers, not to act on their behalf. Those who don't complain and simply cease to take the paper are your real worry, Judy, and next time the redundancy blunderbuss goes off you may not - you ought not - dodge it.

The CEO of Fairfax has told investor briefings that the Readers' Editor is an important initiative, despite all evidence that it plays no more of a help or hindrance to the company than does a limpet on the hull of a boat. Why the effort to engage in such empty window-dressing, and is there any analyst worth their salt who actually believes it is a value-add? Certainly no reader need pay any heed to the Readers' Editor: such an initiative needs external perspective and legislative teeth. I'll deal with Finkelstein in a later post.


  1. I read the first two of Judy Prisk's columns. The SMH is right and the reader is wrong. That's it. The SMH's position, as you say, is to give the reader a perception that it has its readers concerns at heart.

    I'll continue to spend my $1.50, but only for the cryptic crossword. The rest of the paper is crap. And because DA does the crossword on Friday's, they get nothing out of me that day! :^)



  2. Just another management tool to head off complaints and not actually address them. It's bizarre in a media context, but everyone's doing it, so I'm not surprised the SMH doesn't see how damaging it is to their profile. The managers will go off to "manage" something else eventually.

  3. Generally the ABC heads its News bulletins with "The government has incompetently handled XXX [according to uncited coalition spokesperson]" So imagine my surprise when Tony Abbott's eulogy on margaret Whitlam didn't head the bulletin. That the ABC decided to censor it because it was so mean spirited reeks of the anti ALP bias our ABC has exhibited all year.