McGuire on Media

Celebrating Poynter and cheers for Reader Representatives

Every now and then it is important to celebrate clear blessings in our lives.

I think it is just as important to celebrate blessings in our industry. The Poynter Institute and its web site deserve such celebration. Certainly, for many people, the Poynter Web site means Jim Romenesko and his daily blog on the comings and goings, mishaps and upheavals in our industry.  The decision of retired Poynter president, Jim Naughton, to bring Romenesko aboard arguably put the Poynter web site on the map and that blog is must reading for all of us who care about the media business.

Yet, the Poynter web site and the institute itself are a lot more than Romenesko.  They are the source of brilliant guidance on ethics, diversity, leadership and all the issues that make the daily struggle with media responsibilities exhilarating and debilitating at the same instant.

The wonderful columns clarifiying issues and concerns about Jena 6 by Keith Woods and Al Tompkins prompt this specific celebration, but every day the Poynter web site provides enough material to propel any high school or college journalism class to greatness. And, newsrooms who are not closely watching the wisdom offered on Poynter’s site are just begging to be hit by the iceberg.

In Sunday’s New York Times, an excellent piece celebrates the ownership model that has allowed the St. Petersburg Times to remain independent and great. Outstanding leaders like Gene Patterson, Andy Barnes and Paul Tash have struggled mightily to make sure that model insures greatness, but the greatest tributes must go to a man who passed from this earth in 1978, Nelson Poynter himself. 

It was the courageous Poynter who guaranteed the newspaper’s independence by giving ownership of the newspaper to the Modern Media Institute which his successors wisely renamed the Poynter Institute.  As a school, Poynter has educated thousands of journalists and explored scores of cutting edge issues.  As a web site, Poynter educators have created a repository of the most important thinking on our craft.

Nelson Poynter, as brilliant as he was, could never have dreamed of Jim Romenesko or of the power of putting his school’s work online, but his courage and vision make him one of journalism’s all-time great heroes. It is time to celebrate Nelson, his school and the web site’s contributions to journalism. 

CHEERS FOR THE READER’S REPRESENTATIVE

From the beginning of this blog in August I have worried about it becoming Minneapolis Star Tribune or Arizona Republic centric because those are the two newspapers I read regularly, and in the case of the Star Tribune, the place where I left 23 years of sweat.

However, they both keep doing things which I think offer important industry lessons. 

On Friday the Star Tribune Editor, Nancy Barnes, announced that the Reader Representative of three years, Kate Parry, was being appointed health care editor.  This is the part of the announcement that raised red flags for me: “We plan to keep the readers’ rep position open while we evaluate our options although it’s likely that in the future this will be a part-time position.”

Barnes added this: “In the meantime, we hope to step up communication in other ways. We will, of course, continue to answer all readers calls and report significant issues to editors in the room. Department heads will be asked to take on responsibility for correcting errors in their sections. And newsroom leaders will be asked to increase communication with the public.”

I am sure Nancy Barnes is sincere in her hopes, but my experiences tell me three things.  She is mistaken to leave the reader rep job open for any amount of time. A part-time reader rep will dramatically shortchange readers,. Finally, it is a pipedream to think that everything a reader rep does can be absorbed by other staff members.

In 1979 when I got to the Minneapolis Star I was unimpressed by the need for a reader rep at the morning Tribune.  Twenty three years later when I left the editor’s job at the Star Tribune I had become an outspoken advocate for the position.  Editors who think they can allocate the time, attention, listening skills and advocacy to the reader that a reader rep can offer are off base.

Newspapers around the country, including the Star Tribune, are trying a lot of new things such as hyperlocal coverage and new approaches to reporting the news.  It seems to me, that at this critical experimentation juncture, listening to readers and advocating for their opinions is more crucial than ever before.  Let’s cheer for reader reps, let’s not cut them out of our news mix.

WHAT’S A READER TO THINK?

A woman died at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix last week when she was in the custody of police.  The Saturday story in the Republic implied to us she was acting like a madwoman, but she was left unguarded.  On Sunday, the Republic used two bylines on an eight paragraph story with a credit to an AP contribution.  That was a basically a single-sourced story giving the police version of the incident. At 3:56 pm. the AZ Central web site carried a pretty solid story by a Channel 12 television reporter!   Monday morning the newspaper ran another relatively short story from AP on the back section of metro underneath the weather. 

Meanwhile the national media was going crazy with the story and thousands of comments were appearing on a ton of web sites.  Some of those described a wonderful woman, and questioned the police actions, but at 11:22 a.m. Monday the Republic web site ran a story saying the woman was on her way to alcohol rehab.

Look, I will be the first to admit that one of the legions of problems I never solved as an editor was short-staffing on the weekend.  And, I know scores of editors grapple with that problem every week. So good Tim has to assume that the newspaper got caught short and just didn’t have the wherewithal to throw resources at a really big story with national implications. 

Even though I should know better, bad Tim was tempted to side with a couple of people I talked to Monday. When a big national story that might make the local law enforcement and a tourism-focused community look bad, it is hard to refute the argument that the choice of an AP story, poor placement and the acceptance of the local law enforcement line can allow a newspaper to look like it’s in the bag for local law enforcement or the chamber of commerce.

When I was a top editor I used to go nuts at accusations like that, but I eventually learned only aggressive coverage will completely combat mean-spirited charges made by critical readers.