The SMH’s readers (are wrong) editor

We are now about five months into the reign of Australia’s first readers’ editor. And I don’t think it is working.

It struck me at the time of Judy Prisk’s appointment to the Sydney Morning Herald that the fact that her boss was editor-in-chief Peter Fray was not going to be ideal if she was going to be the independent voice of the reader.  

The model in other markets – and the example I know best is the readers’ editor for The Guardian in the UK – is to give the role full independence rather than reporting to the person who effectively it’s their job to criticise.

I’ve been watching Prisk’s Readers’ Editor column with interest.

For me as a news nerd, the Open Door column for The Guardian has been a consistently good read – helping readers’ understand more about news processes and taking the paper to task where called for.

judy_priskI’m sorry to say that I don’t think that Prisk is achieving the same tone.

The sense that comes across, to me at any rate, is a low level of exasperation at the foolish complaints that readers make. So far, there has been almost no significant criticism of the newspaper.

In the 19 columns to date, I’ve found just three minor examples where Prisk has accepted that the paper could have done better: A missing “comment” label on a story, not putting an image of Sam Stosur on the front page when she won the US Open, and some grammatical errors.

The tone is understandable – a journalist who has been embedded at the newspaper as chief sub, stylebook editor and letters editor, Prisk will have played a significant role in creating the system that produces the newspaper she critiques. It would be natural to see it from the journalists’ point of view.

The fact that she addresses her readers as “you” also has the perhaps unwanted side effect that for anyone consuming her column, it feels rather like being ticked off for the misunderstandings of the wider readership.

To return to the Guardian example, the tone there is that somebody is speaking on behalf of the readers to those in the newsroom. Prisk, a journalist for 36 years, tends to do it the other way round – acting as a spokesman for the journalists to the readers.

Here’s how she’s gone thus far:

Week one starts promisingly enough. She tells readers: “It’s about you, and I’m on your side.”

Week two and the readers are complaining about the newspaper’s coverage of Neville Wran’s illness: “I beg to differ with your assessments.”

Week three and the readers have been complaining about columnists’ biases. But Prisk tells them: “Unfortunately, again you offer no specifics, which makes it difficult to follow up. It is more ”a general feeling”, said one reader: when I asked for an example I could work with.”

The headline on the article? “Full steam ahead on good ship Balance.” So that’s okay then.

Week four, and readers who lack grace when their contributions don’t make the letters page are under fire: “Even the most gentle and erudite of people become tooth-and-claw aggressives over this page. Accusations fly and outrageous claims are made.”

Week five, and there’s finally a mild criticism from Prisk after readers accuse the paper of doing a disservice to Sam Stosur by failing to put her US Open win on the front page.  Prisk concedes: “I thought it remiss, too – even horses get the cover.”

She then explains the reason which “had less to do with discrimination against women and more to do with the problem of what is ”new” and what is ‘old’ when readers have television, radio, internet news sites, mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook to update them all day, every day.”

Week six and the readers are unhappy about continued high profile coverage of Kevin Rudd’s battles with Julia Gillard. Sadly: “”I cannot adjudicate about who is right and who is wrong.”

Week seven and the readers’ editor is onto the issue of online commentary:

“There are a lot of very angry people out there, and a lot of you want to vent that anger online. If you veer slightly, or completely, off the topic, so? And if you are spewing invective, abuse, insults, vulgarity, disparagement and just plain old rudeness, well that’s your right, no?

“Actually, no it is not.”

Week eight and it’s time to explain to readers who criticise the paper for not being a journal of record why they are wrong:

“I detect a certain hankering among many readers for days gone by – not so much for horse-and-buggy days, thank heavens, but for the gentler times of 25 or so years ago, before mobile phones and the internet, and definitely before Facebook and Twitter. For the days when newspapers, radio and television were the only sources of news; when James Dibble’s nightly reading of the ABC news on television was the signal for children’s bedtime; when a radio was on every nest of side tables, under the standard lamp. And when The Sydney Morning Herald was ”the country’s oldest journal of record”, a claim made by many when chastising the paper for not publishing a story or angle the reader is interested in.”

Week nine and “Conspiracy theorists are alive and well and living in reader land.” This week those who complain about the publication having hidden agendas are wrong.

Week ten and we’re onto the paper’s coverage of global warming. Readers complain that the paper is biased towards the “greenies” side of the agenda. “That’s not true”, rules Prisk.

Week 11 and readers are unhappy when politicians don’t get a title. But there’s a good explanation.

“Manners, a lack of respect, professionalism and poor training does not come into it. The opposite, actually. It is the Heralds’ style to drop honorifics in feature pieces, analysis and comment.”

However, Prisk does concede that in one example a production error meant that a piece that referred to “Gillard” rather than “Ms Gillard”  had not been labelled as “comment”.

Week 12 and the topic is the media inquiry, which Fairfax doesn’t consider necessary although it is cooperating. According to Prisk: “That you are reading a column by Australia’s only readers’ editor I think shows Fairfax’s commitment to openness and honesty with its readers.”

Week 13, and the topic is a complaint from a naval officer after the paper ran an AAP report on the death of a sailor and incorrectly stated the victim was female rather than male.

Prisk reports:

“He was explicit in his opinion of journalists, including – when I said reporters would not have made it up – ‘They do make it up! They do!’

“They don’t, of course,  and the error was tracked back to an AAP report, picked up by news organisations which take copy from it.”

Of course.

Later in the piece she argues against naming staff journalists when they get facts wrong. She argues: “A mistake made in a newspaper’s name should be corrected in its name.” Unless the mistake belongs to AAP of course, who clearly should be named.

Week 14 sees the focus on picture choice. A number of readers were unhappy about a front page picture of victims of the fire in a nursing home in Quakers Hill. Prisk backs the decision to run the image though.

Week 15, and the final column of the year finally sees some focus on mistakes made by the newspaper. Mainly grammatical mistakes.

Column number 17 came on January 4. Among the topics, are readers who object to the shrinking editorial space over Christmas at the expense of ads.

“Most readers appreciate that without the ads there would be no stories. Our frustrated reader will have to learn to love ’em, just as we have.”

Column 18 tackled complaints over the paper’s extended coverage of the cricket and an article about aggressive bowling by James Pattinson. Prisk’s verdict: “I cannot agree with the criticism of either the headline or the piece.”

Column 19, today, looks at the lot of the poor old journalists when politically correct readers complain about terminology like “wheelchair bound” and “shared custody” of children.

In fairness, I think it’s a good thing that the SMH has a readers’ editor. It’s a step forward. And I’m sure that Prisk comes to this with the intention of being a fair arbiter.

But that may require the acceptance that at times, the readers may be right.

Tim Burrowes


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