Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A visit with the ombudsdudes

While we wait for the Nordic Affairs Bureau to check in on whether "ombudsman" was originally gendered or not, a few observations from the weekend's one-way conversation between reader-reps and readers. One's about two exits past dreadful, but the other shows some signs of hope.

First, this one:
Is news dead?

That was the question that journalists, in moments of paranoia and self-doubt, asked themselves the day after many newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal, felt the need to run the winner of the "American Idol" competition on the front page.

A couple of observations: One, if it bothers you that much, why don't you just -- oh, be the brave editor who decides not to put crap on the front page, or something? Two, have you been asleep for the past four decades, or however long (at a charitable guess) it's been that people have been arguing about which pop-culture trends go out front and which get ignored?And three ...

... These were some of the issues The Commercial Appeal's publisher, Joe Pepe, and I discussed with other editors and publishers a few days ago at a Poynter Institute for Media Studies conference on "The Future of News."

Copydesk, stand by for surface action to starboard. The editor almost certainly doesn't have to write about the junket to justify it for tax purposes, but that's not going to stop him. Anyway, we kind of go on -- and on, and on, and on, and on -- about some mildly apocalyptic ideas (heavily trimmed, but not nearly as heavily as it should have been before it ran):

The news brain no longer resides in newsrooms alone. Not when we have the Internet, and millions of blogs, and a rising generation of news consumers who say: It's not your news, but ours.

... But there is an alternate view that can and should be embraced instead of this nightmarish image. It is a vision of what news can be if we look ahead. ... A new sort of news ecology, if you will, could well be emerging right before our eyes. In this vision, the very definition of news, of its purpose and value to society, is undergoing a metamorphosis. This emerging ecology of news already appears to be changing the very DNA of news for the 21st century:

News will be generated by the people who are chosen, not the chosen people.

Copyeds? Next time the editor-in-chief decides to write that the Chosen People generate the news, just go ahead and hit him on the head with a keyboard, OK? He'll thank you when he comes to.

But let's assume the guy was writing in good faith; he just had a moment of breathtaking cultural stupidity, and no one had the time, or intra-office firepower, or inclination, to stop him. If "chosen people" didn't have a secondary meaning, what would be the difference between "the people who are chosen" and "the chosen people"? Is this a meaningless bombastic distinction, or a bombastic distinction that's meaningless?

But let's proceed:

News will be more a conversation about making sense of the world, less of a sermon from on high. (What the hell does that mean?)

News will rely on the wisdom of the many, not the insight of the few, with journalists being knowledge leaders. (For Mao's sake -- didn't we already figure out that the Cultural Revolution was a really, really bad idea?)

News will be multilayered, from very personal accounts to highly evolved overviews by real pros. (And that's going to distinguish it from today's newspaper in which particular ways? That don't involve the "experts" you just placed in dunce caps, I mean?)

News will be available anytime, from your phone, computer or new technologically advanced device. (It already is. It's also available anytime from a "newspaper" or a "television"; how do you propose to guarantee that you can either provide "new" news on demand or distinguish it from "relevant" news?)

News will be framed according to your social networks, your age and your tribe.
(OK, I'm scared now. Urgent, flash, bulletin: News already is! How do you think Iraq got to be part of the "war on terror" back in 2002? Fox has the decency to be open about appealing to tribal and social standards; are you going to offer an option -- you know, along the lines of "grownup" news by "people who know what the hell they're talking about" -- or just join in the race for the drain?)

"American Idol," in fact, may be a small example of this new ecology of news. (Great. I'll just go strangle a piping plover now, shall I?)

After all, the winner, Taylor Hicks, was voted on by the people.

His life will now be part of America's story. His politics, his religion, his music will all be wrapped into the definitions of what Americans think is important. (Please tell me you don't actually mean this.)

Self-preservation is a powerful instinct. To keep from becoming a dinosaur, I'm making two pledges to the cause of saving news:

First, to work as a translator for my news organization. To help my fellow journalists look ahead to the emerging news ecology and "take steps now" to adjust our daily work and planning to this new ecology.
(Whatever that is, it ain't translation.)

Second, to strive to be on the leading edge of the transformation. To keep learning about what roles, what jobs 21st-century news organizations are being asked to fill even as the core values of journalism are preserved. (Here's a better idea. Pledge One: Stop wasting my time and yours -- not to mention the newshole. Pledge Two: Do some of the work yourself and let the people who put the paper out do some of the learning.)

News isn't dead. It might be asking for a change of venue, but it isn't dead.

Anyway. That one was such a pinnacle of silliness it was hard to resist. Here's a sign of better cheer. The writer gets a lot of details wrong but manages to get pretty near the right conclusion all the same:

The News & Observer in 2005 published 663 corrections, up from 617 the year before. That puts the paper above the median (522) of eight similar-sized newspapers I surveyed, ranging from 409 at The San Antonio Express-News to 779 at The Orlando Sentinel.
Why the median without the mean? More to the point, what does "663" mean? What does it stand in relation to? Are you running more or less news from a year ago? More or less sports? More or less "American Idol"?

I think it's important that readers receive an accounting of our errors, although I'm not sure the numbers mean much. A paper with a low correction count probably is not as aggressive in its news coverage nor as honest with readers as a better paper with a high count. The Washington Post last year published 1,322 corrections, The New York Times about 3,700, according to editors at each. Those two papers, of course, serve larger markets and publish more stories annually than The N&O.
He's on to something -- almost. "The numbers" mean something, but not until they're couched amid some of the context you mention. More or less "aggressive" is a guess, but more or less formal about correcting stuff that's wrong is measurable. Market size isn't relevant; number of stories -- especially the proportion of staff to wire copy (and the willingness to run corrections on errors in wire copy) -- is.

Why was The N&O correction rate up last year? (We don't know whether it is. It's only a "rate" when you give it a denominator, and -- as your suggestions above make clear -- "year" probably isn't the right one. If there were a way to measure fact-claims per year, we'd be closer to a usable measure, though we'd still have to contend with issues of the error's size and relevance. "The," of course, should be lowercase; it's modifying "correction rate," not "N&O.")

I looked over a recent month's worth of corrections, 42 in all. What stood out is how many were not errors by N&O reporters. Some were from syndicated stories picked up in The N&O. Many were in photo captions, based on bad information submitted by photographers. A number were headlines that incorrectly described stories. (There's some real substance here, though I could do without the unsubtle implication that rimsters and photographers are some sort of lesser journalist than "reporters." Correcting agency copy is good, as is fixing busted cuts and heds. Let's hear more about how these come about -- too many 1/48/3s, maybe? -- and what we're going to do to stop them. "Focusing on headlines" doesn't help much if you don't make the tools available.)

What I like here -- and I might be projecting a bit -- is that this one is skating up to an unspoken TRVTH that ought to be spoken more often: It's better to be boring and right than perky and wrong. Which it appears the first editor doesn't get, and that casts any pledges of translation or leadership or whatever from that quarter into permanent doubt.


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