About six months ago I took a big leap, leaving a good job, stable paycheck and measure of security behind me. When I left the Press Herald I didn’t know what I’d wind up doing next, or where.
Well now I know. This story starts with an email I received while sipping a margarita on a beach in Florida in May and ends today. I’ll save you the unabridged version and get to the point.
To paraphrase one of the more disastrous job announcements in recent history:
“This fall I’m taking my talents to Cambridge and joining the Nieman Journalism Lab.”
Jim Gray: “Nieman Journalism Lab, that was the conclusion you woke up with this morning?”
While there are plenty of lessons from the Press Herald Apology (or “Apologygate if you’re looking for a hashtag), one that stuck out to me is what exactly is the role of reader comments in the editorial process?
One of my complaints about the whole affair is that by issuing an apology, particularly to all those voicing their anger over Facebook, Twitter, email and online comments, the Press Herald had “cede(ed) editorial control to the crowd.”
But how should newspapers use reader comments when it comes to making decisions on coverage, story placement or even the reporting process?
(For the moment let’s set aside the other debates on comments, meaning we won’t talk about whether they’re worthwhile or how to improve them. Though former Press Herald colleague Carl Natale has a good idea on how to try and make them civil`.)
The easiest answer is tips and story ideas, as evidenced by this blog post. In the previous post on L’Affair de Press Herald, a commenter said something that stuck in my head:
“And I disagree with you, in that in our web 2.0 world with all of its new interactions between big institutions and their constituents, in a world of declining circulation, and in a world of crowdsourcing, that all newspapers are missing the boat here by retaining 100% control over what stories are reported.”
(Thanks to the commenter who wrote that…but next time think about leaving your name for credit! Also, can we not use the phrase Web 2.0? Please?)
How exactly did “A show of faith and forgiveness” turn into an apology? Gutlessness.
Readers of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram may have been surprised to find an open letter from Publisher Richard Conner yesterday (and today), offering an apology for a story that appeared in print and online.
Was it a grossly inaccurate story? A clear violation of the paper’s standards and practices? Did it perpetrate a crime against the community?
No. They published a story and photos on Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan. And thanks to the date, Sept. 11, that drove some people into hysterics.
In his letter Connor apologized to readers for showing a lack of sensitivity and not balancing their coverage with 9/11 events.
Unfortunately what Connor’s done is created a self-inflicted wound to his newspaper. By apologizing for a factual story portraying part of the community it covers, the Press Herald has damaged its ability to educate, betrayed the journalists who work there, alienated a part of their audience and shown that editorial control can be won by the power of the mob.
In offering the apology, Connor was taking a reactionary stance to an outcry from readers, over email, phone calls, Facebook and Twitter. Since I’ve never sat in the big seat reserved for publishers, this may be guesswork, but taking flak for (and defending) stories is part of the job. As he outlines in his letter, the work of assigning, editing and placing stories is a serious one that involves a large group of people, all of whom just got thrown under the bus in favor of the commenting class.