Wick Communications

You and the NYT

In journalism on 30 Oct 2014 at 12:43 pm

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In a recent column, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan looked back on her third year on the job. The public editor at the Times is more or less an ombudsman, a liaison between readers and the newspaper staff. Sullivan has pushed the position into the digital age.

She wrote that she gets more than 800 emails a week from readers. Lord only knows how many times she is referenced on social media. @Sulliview has about 27,000 followers on Twitter.

She’s noticed a pattern to the kinds of complaints and questions she gets and it occurred to me that these categories of reader inquiry might look familiar to us. I know they are concerns of mine.

Anonymous sources. She says she has repeatedly bent the ear of Times brass about what she and others perceive as a rather cavalier use of anonymous sources. I’m not sure I follow the Times closely enough to have an opinion, but I know we take anonymous sourcing seriously at the Half Moon Bay Review and use it very sparingly. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we’ve been so tempted. To my mind, anonymous sources only make sense for important stories when there is no other way to get the information and when sources have a legitimate concern about giving up their names.

False balance. Sullivan says many readers are concerned with the “he said, she said” nature of much reporting. Sometimes there are two equal views and other times one “side” just makes no sense whatsoever. More often the divide is sort of nuanced. If you were reporting on climate change, how would you handle the divide between the majority of scientists and a few who think it’s all a bunch of hooey? How would you handle the story of a new Planned Parenthood clinic? These can be surprisingly tough questions.

Coverage of the environment. Many readers think we’re ignoring the most important story of our age – the degradation of the earth’s environment. That is probably true.

Staff diversity. I absolutely agree that a newspaper’s staff should reflect the community. If it doesn’t you are very likely to have gaps in your coverage and that’s a deficiency that is bound to hit the bottom line over time. I suspect we can all do more to include communities of color, minority religious beliefs and a range of others from whom we don’t hear enough.

Business challenges. Readers know about the challenges facing legacy media companies. The smart ones worry for our survival. You probably hear from readers who are concerned about your news organization’s bank balance. Convince them you are vital and thriving by doing groundbreaking work that is professional, honest and crucial. The rest will take care of itself.



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