June 16, 2003

Closing the Loop, Opening the Door

I've been in Oaxaca, Mexico, for almost two months and missed Hurricane Jayson and the flood tide of criticism, anger, blame and self-examination it sent surging through America's newsrooms.

Arriving now at the scene of the storm, seeing the breadth of the destruction and the piles of professional detritus, I feel like one of those South Florida homeowners we've seen photographed after some Caribbean tempest standing bewildered, saddened, amid the rubble of his home: Where to begin?

I once had an editor named Frank McCulloch, an ex-Marine who was Saigon bureau chief for Time during the Vietnam War and later became managing editor of the L.A. Times and other newspapers. Frank was old school all the way. To him journalism was a simple thing. Find the people. Ask the right questions. Write the story. "This ain't rocket science," he liked to say.

Frank tolerated management meetings with a thinly disguised distaste, especially those visited by consultants pitching complicated formulas for attracting readership or improving the newspaper.

After leaning back in his chair and listening to his junior editors debate the pros and cons of some reorganization plan designed to do more with less or some such thing, Frank would uncross his long legs, lean forward, plant his black cowboy boots on the floor and his elbows on the conference room table, and state in the emphatic manner in which he said almost everything: "There's only one way I know how to make a newspaper better. You do it one sentence at a time, one headline at a time, one caption at a time."

Sound advice. That's how to deal with the damage left by Hurricane Jayson: One issue at a time.

In the L.A. Times today, David Shaw writes about the practice some newspapers use to check the quality of their reporting - asking "the people who've been interviewed and written about," the sources of their stories, "if the stories were satisfactory and if there were any complaints or questions. Did the stories quote them accurately and in context? Were their names spelled right? Were the facts in the story correct? Were they related fairly?"

Shaw posits that had the New York Times posed such questions to the people portrayed in Jayson Blair's stories, his deception would have been unmasked much earlier.

Shaw interviews several editors who have begun sending letters to sources seeking feedback, suggesting that, in the short term at least, the tactic may become a commonplace, post-Jayson response.

The ever-voluble Steven Brill voices the most energetic support for the practice, which he correctly defines as "quality control" and laments the lethargic reaction he's received from newspaper editors when he's proposed such a thing in the past. "I've suggested this kind of quality control to editors for years, and the silence with which that suggestion is greeted is always deafening," Brill says.

The sound Brill couldn't hear is the arrogant silence in which too many newspapers live, the absence of an ongoing conversation that should be taking place between news sources, news producers and news consumers.

Newspapers fail to see themselves as a component in a data supply chain that obtains information from sources (vendors, if you will), processes it through writing, editing and packaging, and delivers it to a reader (customer).

Instead, newspapers have isolated themselves, defined themselves as institutions that by virtue of tradition and desire for importance deserve to live above the messy fray of public interaction. Isolation breeds mistrust - and that's something newspapers have in abundance these days.

Feedback letters to sources are a way for newspapers to reach out, to breach the barrier of isolation, to step further down a path that leads to more service, more context and more dialogue. [ Read: Service, Context, Dialogue ]

"Equally important," says Shaw, "every letter served as a statement of what the paper stood for and of how vigorously it wanted to enforce its standards. That's a good message for the news media to send to an increasingly skeptical citizenry."

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis picks up the write-it-once-check-it-again theme arguing that a blogging public, by being able to "publish to the world," will make "more of a difference than any commission or ombudsman" when it comes to watch-dogging the press. If another set of eyes always helps a story before its printed -- and it usually does (depending, of course, whose eyes they are) -- then a post-publish edit to the Nth power is all good. [ Read: BuzzMachine ]

 David Shaw Some papers ask, 'Has our work been up to snuff?'

Posted by Tim Porter at June 16, 2003 11:58 AM